8Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ 12God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ 17God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’
There are two important features in this week’s Old Testament lection which will have profound consequences for biblical faith. The first is God’s promise never again to destroy life on the planet via a world-wide deluge. Like a battering husband who shows up with flowers and a box of chocolates, Yahweh shows up with a rainbow, promising “no more,” as if even he is taken aback at the depth and breadth of the violence he has wrought on his own creation. That this violence is ostensibly in response to the creatures’ violence enacted against one another (Gen. 6:11) makes what happens in the flood all the more remarkable. This story of divine wrath is regularly smoothed over in the modern church with its discomfort over such things, as the story morphs from being one of genocide meant for an adult audience into a trip to the zoo for children. This is unfortunate because rendering the story as one about pairs of animals for whom everything works out tidily in the end robs the scene of its power to shock the reader further. For the second major feature of this text, in addition to the promise of “never again,” is the fact that this promise is made to everybody.
It is important to remember that this is the religious text of a peculiar group of people, a small, third-rate vassal state subject to the major players in the region, a group of people whose identity was maintained by differentiating themselves (aka holiness) from others by every available means. Yet here in this text—their text—they tell the story of their deity making a covenant with the whole world. Indeed, the story of this covenant, if I may make a pun, promulgates the covenant in a kind of overkill. Depending on how one counts the recurring phrases of “every living creature,” “all flesh,” and “all the earth,” there are at least six different iterations of the unmistakable notion that there is no living thing anywhere that will ever exist anywhere that is not covered under the scope of this covenant. And that is quite extraordinary in a text of a people chock full of references to that people’s uniqueness and the special place that they hold in this god’s heart.
While it may be extraordinary, this is by no means the only biblical reference which addresses God’s work outside of Israel. I have benefited richly from the little book by Old Testament scholar W. Eugene March, The Wide, Wide Circle of Divine Love: The Biblical Case for Religious Diversity, in which he reviews the range of OT texts that speak of God’s universal salvation, beginning with Genesis 9 and concluding with the wisdom literature, in which the gift of human reason is employed to understand God’s creation. Walter Brueggemann has also actively engaged this subject, focusing on texts such as Amos 9:7, in which Israel receives the surprise news that Yahweh has been engaged in “other Exoduses” than the one most familiar to them, or Isaiah’s vision of both Egypt and Assyria, along with Israel, being joined in the worship and praise of Yahweh (Isaiah 19:19-25). Other examples in narrative form include the mission of Jonah to the Ninevehites, the healing of Syrian general Naaman (2 Kings 5:1-19), and the story of Ruth of Moab, the ancestor of King David. It’s a recurring theme which shows up in a variety texts far too frequently to be coincidence.
The promise of God’s universal salvation is even more prominent in the New Testament. Its most potent presentation in the gospels is found the parable of the Great Supper in the gospel of Luke, to which all of the “wrong” people are invited. The most sustained teaching in this vein can be found in the writings of the Apostle Paul, who seems to have gotten into a lot of hot water with other early Christian leaders for making such sweeping claims about the extent of the work of God in and through the death of Jesus Christ:
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up ALL things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.—Ephesians 1:7-10
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself ALL things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. —Colossians 1:19-20
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.—Philippians 2:9-11
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as ALL die in Adam, so ALL will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed EVERY ruler and EVERY authority and power. For he must reign until he has put ALL his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For ‘God has put ALL things in subjection under his feet. But when it says, ‘ALL things are put in subjection’, it is plain that this does not include the one who put ALL things in subjection under him. When ALL things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put ALL things in subjection under him, so that God may be ALL in ALL.—1 Corinthians 15:20-28
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: EVERYTHING old has passed away; see, EVERYTHING has become new! ALL this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, NOT COUNTING THEIR TRESPASSES AGAINST THEM and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.—2 Corinthians 5:17-29
Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for ALL.–Romans 5:18
For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to ALL. –Romans 11:32
As the above list of texts makes clear, for Paul the theme of God’s universal salvation is not a sidelight: it is bound inextricably to his understanding of the death of Jesus and is stated repeatedly in unequivocal terms.
To grasp the political dimensions of reading scripture this way, with an emphasis on God’s work with the whole human family, one need look no further than the response to President Obama’s remarks at the recent National Prayer Breakfast, at which, apparently, he was supposed to offer a catalogue of Islamic horrors, drawing America’s majority population of Christians away from reflection on our own tradition’s offences to obsession over everybody else’s. The topic was not universal salvation per se, but the president’s many critics made it abundantly clear that they had no interest in hearing Islam mentioned in the same sentence with Christianity.
Here we have a reason why it is so important that God’s covenant is with all of humankind in our present context. We are approaching in the West nearly fifteen years of constant war in the Middle East against Muslims, yet this week we find President Obama, not winding all that up, but instead, asking Congress for an additional authorization for even more military force. This past week also witnessed the murder of three Muslim students in North Carolina and the burning of a mosque in Texas. Around the world, the friction between Muslims continues to escalate, enveloping bystanders and radicalizing those of formerly moderate outlook. The church cannot sit idly by and go about its business as if all of this is outside of its concern or expertise. Nor can it recommend some generic form of tolerance in an attempt to settle folks down. The church has to be faithful to the gospel. It must speak out of its own texts a word that is congruent with its identity and mission. Pastors must remind their congregants of God’s all-encompassing covenant and tell the old stories of God’s redemptive purposes being at work among odd fellows like Assyrians and Egyptians and, above all, how that God’s desire to make covenant with all of humanity was most tangibly demonstrated through the gift of his Son.
Timothy F. Simpson is Editor Emeritus of Political Theology.