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B'resheet/Genesis 9:12 This [is] the sign of the covenant that I am giving between Me and you and every living being that [is] with you, for generations forever.
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HaShem is here speaking to Noah as part of the debriefing following the flood. After repeating the instructions that He gave Adam - "Be fertile and increase, and fill the earth" (B'resheet 9:1) - HaShem gives a series of regulations that the Sages have used to construct the Noachide Laws, laws which the Sages apply to the whole of mankind. The next block of verses, 8-17, contain an explicit renewing - or establishing - of HaShem's covenant with Noah and his descendants. It comes in two paragraphs: the first (vv. 8-11) declares the covenant; the second (12-17) describes the accompanying sign of the covenant.
Looking at the vocabulary in this second paragraph, we can see that it has a number of repeated words and phrases. The word , 'covenant', occurs five times, in verses 12, 13, 15, 16 and 17; while , "sign of the covenant" occurs three times, in verses 12, 13, and 17. , "bow in the cloud" also appears three times, in verses 13, 14, and 16; another threesome is , "every living creature" in verses 12, 15 and 16; "on/upon the earth" is another thricely repeated phrase, , in verses 14, 16 and 17. The repeated verbs , to see, and , to remember, emphasise the visual and memorial nature of the sign: it is to be seen and, when it is seen, G-d will remember His covenant.
What is the sign for - why do we have it? Umberto Cassuto says that "it is a sign and a reminder, so that you should not forget the covenant in the future."1 The sign has become a part of the nature of creation and will outlive the current recipients to reach future generations who did not hear the verbal affirmation of covenant. Indeed,Abravanel suggests that the sign was redundant for Noah and his sons: "Noah and his sons were already reassured by the establishment of the covenant, but 'The L-RD was pleased, for His righteousness' sake' (Isaiah 42:21, ESV) to go further and give them this reliable sign." Nahum Sarna tells us that the word is here "a distinctive, visible object that immediately calls to mind a particular message", which David Kimchi summarises as: "You need not be afraid of a Flood when it rains, for you will see this sign."
What about the physical characteristics of the sign - do they matter? Richard Elliott Friedman says that "it is called this ( in Hebrew and 'bow' in English) because its shape is like a bow that one uses to shoot arrows. The rainbow is the sign of the covenant that promises that G-d will not destroy the earth again." Laurence Turner suggests that "the arching rainbow mimics the domed firmament restraining the 'waters above' and reminds G-d to maintain the function of this vital cosmological structure."2 Across the centuries, other scholarly and rabbinic figures have offered various different meanings for the name, shape, colour or appearance of this sign, but Nechama Leibowitz is firm that none of these are appropriate: "We are not to look for and ferret out its symbolism in the the form of the bow, its colour or physical characteristics to determine the connection between them and what it means to us." Well, that's very adamant, but why does she say that? It is because "the bow will serve as a token or sign because the Almighty has fixed it as a token of His covenant which, in His kindness, He made with mankind that He would never again send a flood to destroy all flesh - not because violence and robbery had disappeared from the world and not because mankind had already been purified of sin, but on account of His mercy and patience." By seeking a scientific, etymological or artistic explanation, we demean the simple (yet complex) act of G-d's grace. He did it because He cares for us and wants to communicate that care to us in a way at which we can see and marvel without needing to understand and analyse it. Such analysis, which attempts to provide a physical and/or rational explanation for the phenomenon, must inevitably devalue it as a supernatural sign of grace.
Gordon Wenham tells us that "signs are all appointed by G-d: it is His word or consecration of these sometimes ordinary events or customs that makes them significant, pointers to His activity and purposes." Circumcision is also called 'a sign of the covenant' - 'You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you' (B'resheet 17:11, NJPS) - and "The Children of Israel are to keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations as a everlasting covenant: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel" (Shemot 31:16-17) implies that Shabbat is likewise. Wenham continues, "these signs remind man of G-d's presence and G-d-given obligations, but here, most unusually, the rainbow is a sign that is seen by man but serves to remind G-d of His promises."3 Walter Brueggemann agrees, explaining that: "The bow is a promise to creation. It is at the same time a reminder to G-d of a vow He will honour."4
Although the word 'sign' is not used, we can understand the tzitzit, or tassels spoken of in the third paragraph of the Sh'ma as a sign. Moshe instructs the Jewish people to make tzitzit, "with a cord of blue" (B'Midbar 15:38) to be attached to the corners of their garments. They are to be a reminder - to look at: "and recall all the commandments of the L-RD and observe them" (v. 39, NJPS), so that the Israelites shall be "reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your G-d" (v. 40, NJPS). Still worn by observant Jewish men today, these tassels act as a very visible identity marker and a reminder that we are a covenant people; they are one of the signs of the covenant.
Isaiah's words to King Ahaz lead our discussion on to the next step: "The L-rd himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (Isaiah 7:14, ESV). When Yeshua was born, an angel told the shepherds, "And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger" (Luke 2:12, ESV); this is it - this is what you have been waiting for. Simeon too identified Yeshua as the sign: "Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed ... so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed" (vv. 34-35, ESV). Although Yeshua refused to provide 'signs' on demand from the religious authorities, He clearly did many miracles, many acts of healing and deliverance as well as speaking and teaching "with authority" (Mark 1:27), so that many people believed in Him. At the point of Yeshua's death, the sign was so visible that "when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way He breathed His last, he said, 'Truly this man was the Son of God!'" (Mark 15:39, ESV). We should hear Brueggemann say, "The telling of the story must focus of that surprising and irreversible turn in G-d's posture towards creation. This is the substance of the gospel. The G-d who rules over us has turned towards us in a new way."5
At this point, let's hear from RabbiHirsch, who writes, "Just as G-d did not satisfy Himself with merely proclaiming His Word, but dedicated a memorial to His proclamation, so, in the whole course of the history of the Divine government for the well-being of mankind and Israel, He appointed signs, reminders for the great truths and principles He gave them." Sarna too says that "the world is provided with a visible token of the divine commitment." Yeshua was the greatest and most fully representative of G-d's signs. G-d could not be more committed than in giving Yeshua as our atonement.
In the same way that Yeshua was a sign, pointing clearly to His Father and to the kingdom of G-d, so we too as His disciples are signs. Like sign-posts along the highways, we are to point clearly to Yeshua and be an advertisement for the kingdom of G-d. Positioned at all the junctions and interchanges, we are to show the real but often unspoken destination of the "broad way" and offer the invitation to come off the highway, to pass through what Charles Haddon Spurgeon called the "wicket gate which stands at the head of the way of life" and go by the "road less travelled" (Matthew 7:13-14). To whom do you point? Are your words and graphics clean and clear so that they can be easily read? Is your message unambiguous so that it can be easily understood? Are you faithfully fulfilling the role of a sign of the covenant that G-d has given?
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: Part Two - From Noah to Abraham, (Jerusalem, Magnes Press, 1984), page 135.
2. - Laurence A. Turner, Genesis - Readings: A New Biblical Commentary, 2nd Ed., (Sheffield, Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), 47.
3. - Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary I, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1987), page 195.
4. - Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), page 84.
5. - Brueggemann, page 85.
Further Study: Joshua 4:4-7; Isaiah 66:18-20; Luke 13:23-27
Application: Are you fulfilling your calling as a sign in these days? Do you need a visit to the spiritual pressure wash to clean down the roadside debris and make you clean and visible once more? Ask the Chief Maintainer of Signs to check your orientation, repair the chip marks and polish your surface so that you shine and glow for Him even in the duskiest of days.
Comment - 18:08 05Oct21 Joshua VanTine: Great drash. Has me pondering signs and signposts throughout the Torah, Tanach and Brit Chadshah and am I bringing joy to the Holy One as a sign.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2021
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