Noah’s Rainbow

Noah’s Rainbow: The Development of Human Intellect and Compassion

The first book of the Bible, Genesis, recounts the mythic stories of some of our earliest human ancestors. The name Genesis literally means “birth,” or “origin,” and it poetically charts how human beings developed knowledge, society and morality over time.

For instance, in Genesis 9—after the cataclysmic flood—God made a covenant with Noah. He said to Noah, “I promise that never again will all things be destroyed by a flood…As a sign of this everlasting covenant which I am making with you and with all living beings, I am putting my bow in the clouds. It will be a sign of my covenant with the world. Whenever I cover the sky with clouds and the rainbow appears, I will remember my promise to you and to all the animals…”

It is a wonderful Biblical myth to explain the first appearance of the rainbow. Furthermore, it describes both God’s compassion for all creation, and our human duty to protect it as an echo of God’s charity.

If the physical universe is now known to be constant, we can be pretty sure that rainbows have always existed. At least, as long as mists of water have refracted sunlight. Why, then, were Noah and his family seemingly the first people to see them? Perhaps, I would argue, they were not the first to physically see them, but rather the first to intellectually notice them.

With the Bible’s gradual introduction of themes and wonders to humanity, it seems we are meant to understand that both natural and divine revelation are painstakingly slow, unfurling processes that require the patient attending of many, many generations. Thus, each revelation is predicated upon the burgeoning intellect of our human species: our readiness for grasping the lesson.

When we read the Old and New Testaments as a Biblical teleology of increasing human awareness and reflection, we could be said to be retracing the our ancestors’ pathways to knowledge, sometimes articulated in mythical terms, and much later in more tangible, historical ones.

At the other end of the Bible, in the Gospels, Christ seems to affirm this suspicion. When Christ teaches about divorce law to the recalcitrant Pharisees, he tells them (insultingly) that some of the the laws handed down to Moses (many generations before) were given to the Israelites because they were stubborn, poor students. Christ said, “Moses gave you permission to divorce your wives because you were so hard to teach.” (Matthew 19:8; Mark 10:5) Christ offers, instead, a new covenant to them, a new relationship with God that relies more on personal spiritual control instead of imposed outward contraints.

In another episode, again inciting the Jewish establishment with his ideological iconoclasm, Christ broke traditional, sacred laws about keeping Kosher. He made the point that “It is not what goes into a person’s mouth that makes him ritually unclean; rather, what comes out of it makes him unclean.” (Matthew 15:11; Mark 7:15) “Anything that goes into a person’s mouth goes into his stomach and then on out of his body. But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these are the things that make a person ritually unclean. For from his heart come the evil ideas which lead him to kill, commit adultery, and do other immoral things; to rob, lie, and slander others. These are the things that make a person unclean.” (Matthew 15:17-20; Mark 7:18-23)

Heavy stuff, and apparently not everyone listening was ready for taking such personal responsibility. Perhaps we’re still not.

A few verses earlier, in order to underpin his argument, Christ recalled the prophecy of Isaiah: “These people, says God, honor me with their words, but their heart is really far away from me. It is no use for them to worship me, because they teach manmade rules as though they were my laws.” (Isaiah 29:13)

According to Jesus, God in the First Century is no longer pleased by simple rule obeyance. The increasing intellect and awareness of people demands increased humility and compassion in their words and deeds in order to be faithful. Indeed, Christ says we will be judged by God—not according to our diligence in abiding rules—but in the way in which we treat others.

As the penultimate creed Christ embraces the Golden Rule, the ethic of reciprocity: “Treat others as you would like to be treated.” Together with the Greatest Commandment to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” it supercedes all others. Jesus said, “The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 22:34-40; Luke 10:25-28)

If those who are researching “social evolution” are correct, the Golden Rule has always been with and within us. It just may be that its first philosophical introduction, in the “Axial Age” from 800-200BC (which I’ve discussed in “An Updated Answer for Job”), and its central place in Christ’s ministry, were unveiled at the precise moment when we humans were ready to understand its ultimate truth.

Just as we’ve never lost physical sight of Noah’s rainbow, how (in good faith) can humanity still overlook its covenant of stewardship? Or, disregard the universal Golden Rule? The answer may be that—like seeing and noticing—-understanding and accepting are two different things.

In our time, post the Axial Age, we are now making a conscious decision whether or not to inflict malice upon others or the environment. We must remember this in all areas, regardless of our political, religious or cultural traditions.

The choices are ours. And so are their consequences.

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