Before God began to create, there was water. Later, that same primordial water returns in the form of a destructive flood. After Noah, his family, and the animals survive the flood, God announces the creation of a covenant with that family, their descendants, and all animal life. God promises to all such life and even the earth that there will never be another flood designed to destroy all life and the earth. (Later apocalyptic writers will imagine a cataclysm fire.)
Just as there is a “sign” of the covenant made between God and Abraham—circumcision (Gen 17:11)—so too the covenant with Noah involves a sign, “my bow in the clouds.” This bow is almost certainly a rainbow, which Ezekiel knows as “the bow in a cloud on a rainy day” (Ezek 1:28)—a different sort of water. The word “bow” is regularly used in the Old Testament to refer to a military implement (e.g., Zech 9:10). Remarkably, the writer in Genesis has imagined the pacification of this weapon: from battle bow into rainbow. God has turned the strung bow into a diaphanous and multi-hued arc in the sky. God has turned away from destruction to peace. God the destroyer has become God the preserver. Such is the purport of this first biblical covenant.
As one moves to the New Testament lections, water remains important. These verses in Mark 1 recount the baptism of Jesus, an act now celebrated in the Christian sacrament of baptism. Mark’s account is striking when compared with those of Matthew and Luke. The latter gospels speak of the heaven(s) opening. Mark, in contrast, reports that “he (Jesus) saw the heavens torn apart.” The baptismal scene is no ordinary moment. The sky is ripped open, recalling the moment hoped for in the book of Isaiah: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…” (Isa 64:1). That time of cosmic disruption has now taken place with the baptism of Jesus. The power of the baptismal waters has triggered this response in the heavens.
The writer of 1 Peter reflects on the power of this baptismal water and relates it to the time of the flood. He writes that “eight persons [Noah and his family] were rescued through water.” The waters of the flood here become, in this Christian reflection on the flood story, a means of which salvation takes place. The author then moves to the practice of baptism, which he deems to have been “prefigured” by the salvation of those who survived the flood: “Baptism is like that. It saves you now.” Just as Noah was “rescued through water” (CEB), Christians are saved by means of baptismal waters. The primordial waters, which had once been a tool of destruction, have become a means of grace.
David Petersen is Franklin N. Parker Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, Emory University. While at Emory, he was also Academic Dean at the Candler School of Theology, where he received the Emory Williams Distinguished Teaching Award.