This essay comes from my initial reading of the Genesis flood narratives, alongside von Rad's commentary Genesis, and the introductory chapters of Thomas Brodie's Genesis as Dialogue. I find the stories discomforting. In this essay I pause to take consider why.
What I bring to the text.
Firstly, the text is literary, not literal.
We westerners are all culturally conditioned to read text as "historical reporting," as though it can access the precise facts of "what happened" in an event. But this is especially so for Christians who have been influenced by the young earth creation heresy. On the one hand we may have a hard time escaping our conditioning, and find it difficult to "read story rather than text book"; on the other, we may be reactive to our former naivety, even embarrassed, and too quickly reject parts of the text that "sound fundamentalist."
Genesis is a self-conscious literary product. What I mean by this is that the author is saying something about God and Israel and, indeed, all humanity. They were working from a mindset which says truth is carried in story, which is unfortunately novel for many of us. (In my case, it sometimes feels like a concept I understand more in terms of theory than being able to be embrace as a reality!) Our first questions should not be, "Did this happen?" but "What truth about us does the story seek to carry?" Literal facticity is not the issue.
What does this imply for reading the Flood narratives?
Firstly, it lets us actually see what are often described as the layers of tradition, or the sources. Even in an English translation, these are quite obvious once we escape the fundamentalist requirement that it must all be literally true. That thinking leads to an almost automatic harmonisation of the obvious discord in the story, followed by ad hoc rationalisation of differences too obvious to ignore.
But seeing the text as literature also forces us to go beyond the apparent sources, and confront our own cultural chauvinism. Might we read this apparent patchwork of sources not as a slavish need to harmonise competing traditions, nor as some kind of "primitive" writing, but as purposeful and deliberate? Could the author be deliberately creating a narrative which is not seamless, in order to communicate? Could it even be that the author expected the reader of the day to notice the seams!? To believe the author could not create a seamless narrative is culturally chauvinistic.
The understanding of Genesis which I find in the introductory chapters to Thomas Brodie's Genesis as Dialogue, goes beyond my assumption that Genesis is "resistance writing" during the Exile, to the understanding that Genesis is likely written after the Exile. It is seen as a deliberate reflection, with the perspective of time distance, upon God and Israel and the exilic prophets. It is not a "cut and paste job" of poorly matched sources.
A second implication is that we must first strive to hear the story rather than critique it. It does not matter what Christian doctrine says, nor what Calvin said, nor what the "New" Atheists say— or Ken Ham, come to that. We are not subject to them. If we are to do the story of the flood justice, we must first be subject to the story. What does it say in its own world? What are the emotions it evokes in its original readers?
This will be an extended process, as, I suspect, is serious engagement with any part of the book. I am finding its culture even more unfamiliar than I expected, and finding the stories seriously confront my own understandings of life and self. I am startled by how much I find myself conditioned to easily dismiss the unfamiliar, rather than letting it engage me in dialogue. Genesis is not an Ikea manual where we follow the instructions and then forget the details; it is a story to return to and to hear again, finding new nuance and insight.
In hearing the story I need to be alert to one key issue. I quote from a later post (albeit now listed earlier in this series of articles)
For Genesis to be the story of how Israel and its world came to be, there must be a Flood. The Flood was a part of a person's general knowledge, one of the stories which formed the background for life. At the time Genesis was written, Israel had effectively spent two or three generations, seventy or so years, in Babylon. A story of the world not only had to include the Flood, it had to deal with the horror that the gods, or in Israel's case, God, had caused the Flood. For us reading today, it is imperative to read with this understanding. Genesis is not a story of a brutal God; Genesis, in its situation, is the story of a stunningly just and merciful God.
We arrogantly think the ancients were primitive and violent, which is to underestimate their humanity and vastly exaggerate our own abilities to be humane. It discounts the pain and fear with which people likely lived their lives in a dangerous and apparently hostile world. Genesis is not the story of people who projected themselves onto the notion of a primitive and violent god. It is the story of a people gradually discovering a just, faithful, merciful God in a world where the gods were known for being gratuitous and capricious, faithless, and merciless.
What I find in the first reading
1. As we begin to read, even in English, perhaps with an interlinear Hebrew text, we can easily see sections where the Divine is referred to as "the Lord" as opposed to "God." In those particular sections we also see reference to "all flesh." The "God" sections refer to two of each animal, whereas the Lord=Yahweh sections also mention seven pairs of clean animals. This story is focussed around a 40 day flood, the other, the God=Elohim paragraphs relate to a 150 day flood. Von Rad gives his assessment of the two traditions which seem to be woven together on pages 118-9 and 125-126.
2. There is an uncompromising statement that God is in the right. God's conclusion from observing all that has happened is this:
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. 13And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. (6:11-13)
This is not an arbitrary decision. The narrative has listed the behaviour of Adam and Eve, of Cain, of Lamech, (in the first genealogy of Chapter 4), and then in opening verses of Chapter 6, it says
When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, 2the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. 3Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in mortals for ever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’ 4The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.
Chapter 6:3 (my spirit shall not abide in mortals forever) suggests the "sons of God" may have been interpreted as being angels, or more than human, and that the narrative is not so much about sexual morality, as about humanity seeking an immortality which is beyond themselves. But the clear context of the verses is that they are added evidence of humanity's failure to be human, for the next verses say
The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind (adam) was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. 6And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’
Von Rad tells us
the "heart," according to the Old Testament view, is the seat not only of the emotions, but also of the understanding and of the will… therefore the entire inner life of man. (sic)
The entire inner life, every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. This is contrasted with Yahweh: And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. In this story we see how the one who has given everything is deeply offended and hurt. Von Rad says of this contrasting of the heart of humanity and of God that
In daring contrast to what is said about the human heart there follows a word about what takes place in god's heart: grief, affliction, and disappointment in man. (sic)… [There is an] incomprehensibility [to] this incursion of sin. pp117
Scholars suspect that the God of Genesis 1:26 who has created humanity in "his" image, is the God of Ezekiel 1:26. That is, Genesis is written after the prophets of the Exile, and probably after the miraculous return to Jerusalem from the Exile, and is reflecting upon the renewed experience of God witnessed to by Ezekiel, and also Jeremiah and Isaiah, and in the return from exile. (I note this hypothesis in this article.) Brodie refers to this on pages 81-82:
An increasing number of scholars are showing that Genesis is dependent on some form of the exilic prophets. Von Rad (1962, I, 146), for instance, maintained that the Genesis idea of the likeness of God (Gen.1 :26) was dependent Ezekiel 1 ("Ezek.1:26 is the theological prelude ... to Gen. 1:26"). Likewise, but more extensively, Genesis 2-3 apparently depends on Ezekiel 28: "Ezekiel's own invention has been taken over by Genesis.... It is a mistake to try to derive both accounts from a common original" (van Seters, IW2, 119—134, esp. 121; cf. Fretheim, 359: "Some version of Ezekiel 28 was probably a source for the writer of Genesis. And further signs of dependence on the prophets are emerging…. Such dependence means that Genesis is later than the exilic prophets, including Second Isaiah.
I'm labouring the point here because it is the magnificence and transcendence of Ezekiel 1:26, known to the first readers of Genesis, who is "grieved to his heart." A part of our tradition wishes that God is not too human, that God would be above human-like emotion. To our modern ears, it sounds childishly and naively anthropomorphic. But in the story God—even the God of Ezekiel's vision—is grieved to the depths of the heart. Thus, when the flood comes, God is in the right.
Remembering and righteousness
Yet in this grief, despite this grief, God remembers Noah. Noah was righteous. Noah walked with God. We are inclined to overlay righteousness with morality; that is, we are righteous because we do the right thing, and keep the right rules. But von Rad says "a 'righteous person' does justice to a relationship in which [they] stand…" a person who 'believes, trusts God… is righteous." In the story, Noah (and Enoch) are not just keeping the rules, they relate to God. When they hear the "Lord God walking in the garden," as it were, they do not hide themselves, they do not need to hide themselves. (Gen 3:8)
So Noah is spared from the flood. God's remembering of Noah happens in Chapter 8:1 and, as von Rad says, the moment God remembers Noah, the ark comes to rest on the earth. There is a pun here for the Hebrew readers: the ark comes to rest and Noah's name has rest as its root. (pp128) Ararat, suggests von Rad, is chosen because it was the highest known mountain; that is, it is the first land visible. Noah and earth are reunited, even reconciled.
God has a change of heart
Something in God changes. God makes peace with us.
I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.
22 As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night,
shall not cease.’
It's not that people will no longer held responsible for their actions, but that the ground is not cursed because of us. There will be no more floods like this one. The statement reads as much as a mercy to the creation which suffered because of humankind, as it is towards humankind itself! It puts us in our place. We are simply one player rather than the centre of the world.
We see rainbows before the rain; they are a promise that the rain will stop. And we see rainbows after the rain; a reminder of God's continuing mercy. Remembering the complaint of violence in 6:12, von Rad wrote
The Hebrew word that we translate as "rainbow" usually means in the Old Testament "the bow of war." The beauty of the ancient conception thus becomes apparent: God shows the world that he (sic) has put aside his bow. (pp134)
Where does this briefest of readings, trying to hear the story on its own terms, leave me?
It is an assault on my cultural worldview. As technologists who pretend not to be storytellers— as impoverished storytellers— we imagine ourselves to be in control. We have decided what kind of God we want, picking and choosing congenial elements of the New Testament and other sources. This God is required to be merciful and just on our terms, according to our perceptions, if it is a real God. But in the Genesis flood God seems unjust in killing everyone and everything. Or we may go further and cite the story as one more reason for abandoning the unreasonable idea that there is a God.
Perhaps more insulting to our world view is the idea of a personal God, a being who is alleged to be loving, and in control, but who remains silent and does not act to correct so much that goes wrong with creation.
It does not matter that the sketch above is an un-nuanced, and shallow caricature. It floats in all the air we breathe. It is flung at us by those who reject the idea of God altogether. It is always in the air, but the Flood's enormity brings it into sharp relief, making the flood unforgiveable. (I can't help wondering if the author expects this response and is challenging us with the notion that if anyone were to be unforgiveable, it is us.)
A sensitive person facing the Flood is tempted to retreat from the notion of the personal God to some distant principle who— more likely, which— got things started. By making God distant we relieve God of responsibility for what is wrong with the world, and relieve ourselves of the embarrassment of a God who seems powerless to intervene in current issues, let alone allegedly capricious in the case of stories like the Flood. We may retreat even further from the biblical view of God, and decide God is a projection, and not real at all.
In contrast to us, Israel and its author had no pretension that it was in control of its world. It was not telling and writing theology from a position of power and privilege. Neither was it developing technologies which, for the most part, had the sanction of Empire because they were entrenching the power and wealth of the Empire. As we face the uncertainty of climate change, and even the loss of our species' ecological niche, our whole view that we are in control in the world, and have no need of God, will face challenge and modification.
The writers of Genesis also had no pretensions to moral superiority. For them, there was no moral problem with the flood. Humanity was corrupt in its heart; that is, to the core of its being. God was quite justified to do what God did. We, on balance, tend to think we are not too bad as people.
Yet the writers did not adhere to some understanding of the total depravity of humanity. Lamech is shown in all his human ambiguity, and post Fall, Enoch could still "walk with God," as could Noah. It is in Noah that some "rest" or "relief" would be found. The Genesis authors saw in us, despite our 'corruption,' and our being born of cursed ground, something of our own salvation; we were not nothings before God, we had agency, and we could choose to walk with God.
The writers present our primary human problem as violence.
11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. 13And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. (Genesis 6:11-13)
The misuse of power, which is in itself a violence, is still the root of our disease as people and cultures. It is the human problem. In Genesis 2, violence is conspicuously absent. We see we are vegetarian— remember this is not a literal story— but then come Cain and Lamech, the observation that "the earth is full of violence because of them" and, at the end, this:
The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. 3Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. (Gen 9:2-3)
They are no longer the helper-companions. And as for human interaction, violence is the norm which must be constrained.
5For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life.
6 Whoever sheds the blood of a human,
by a human shall that person’s blood be shed;
for in his own image
God made humankind. (Gen 9:5-6)
In current discourse, we often speak of White Male Privilege— newish words which describe the age old problem of misused power, and the violence which constitutes and saturates this misuse. The rage and violence which reacts to the naming of white male privilege— read virtually any comments section on social media— proves the point about violence.
The writers of Genesis had no pretensions that they owned the place. If God has created, if God owns, if humanity has been corrupt— "all flesh"— "in their hearts," it is God's creation to do with as God wills. Israel knew itself to be creature, subordinate, and dependent. Our ecological crisis, and our thoroughgoing lack of mercy in the rejection of refugees, and in the sacrifice of Syria to the gamesmanship and power-plays of the great powers, for example, both show we have no sense of our contingency and dependence, let alone any sense of duty to the creator.
Because of the poverty of our self-understanding as creatures, we have an impoverished understanding of grace. Von Rad calls grace a miracle; he quotes Calvin saying that without God's mercy there would need to be a flood every day. "Grace is known as the incomprehensible duration of the natural orders in spite of continuing human sin." (pp123) In this understanding, the Flood— impossibly from our point of view— is an act of mercy. Noah— we— are spared, undeserving as we are. Yes, Noah walked with God, but Noah is also the son of Lamech, the violent one. (4:23-4)
Perhaps this is the major affront of the Flood story, and of Genesis 1-11 as a whole. It is not the outlandish storyline so at odds with allegedly superior western scientific understanding of our origins, that is the issue. It is the claim of Genesis that we are contingent. We do not own ourselves. We belong to something greater than ourselves.
We are also blind to ourselves. We pretend to scientific insights and wisdom; some consider themselves "Brights." But perhaps even at our brightest, we risk being mere technicians who have forgotten that we are at heart— in our deepest being— story telling creatures. When one watches a movie like The Day after Tomorrow or, Deep Impact, it is instructive to listen to the commentary. There will be arguments about how well the actors fulfilled their role. There will be arguments over the scientific veracity and likelihood of the scenario of the movie— could there be such a storm?
But no one will point out that this is one more iteration of the story of a great flood, something which is found in many cultures. Even we proud Babel-building technicians cannot escape, in our story telling— in our true talking about ourselves— we cannot escape the need for a flood. Do we know, at a deeper level, what we deserve!? The great list of disaster movies on Wikipedia shows us what we constantly deny and yet, more deeply know: Like Israel, we are creatures.
So how do we live?
In the Noah story it says Noah is righteous before God. (7:1) Von Rad (pp120) says righteousness is relational. It is not rule keeping before God, much less rule keeping, or just fitting in, according to current cultural expectations.
And this brings me full circle to the central claim of Israel in Genesis: Yahweh / Elohim is a living, vital, relational God. As a 21st century Australian this is deeply at odds with my cultural instincts, which are that we are on our own in a harsh land where we must make the best of it. The storytelling side of me— my heart— is something I have been taught and conditioned to mistrust, to judge as infantile, as not very Bright, in almost every cultural interaction outside church. And church, with its often infantile inability (or unwillingness) to understand its own story, and its insistence on literal historical truth in the face of all evidence, has made that conditioning worse.
Genesis, and the Primary History (Genesis – 2 Kings) are not the slowly developing stories and historical memories of a primitive culture. Rather they are a reflection upon the experience of Exile, and the grace of an unexpected return: Who are we, this people who learned that we were not God's inviolable favourites with a son of David always on the throne? Who are we, this people miraculously returned home? Who is Yahweh who has burst again into our consciousness?
Who are we, this people who are facing Exile from a stable planet we thought we owned? Who are we, owning everything, and yet alone? Is Yahweh?
I do not want to say, "Does God exist?" Apart from the fact that it makes God an object, it is the wrong question. It implies a staticity, a settled question in a time when everything is unsettled.
Is God? is the daily challenge. Is God? alleges I am creature, dependent, not master of my own destiny. Is God? is the question of our time. In its answer, Genesis says that the vision of being relational with God like "the first people" is not possible. I cannot walk with God. Genesis is correct, our air-conditioned and insulated existence is far separated from our beginnings and earthiness. But Is God? pulls me up short. It confronts me with the question of whether I am my own self, independent of my origins, or whether I will seek to find and relate to what has given me birth and being.
A recent article introducing Tanya Luhrmann's book When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God quotes the following:
In effect, people train the mind in such a way that they experience part of their mind as the presence of God. They learn to reinterpret the familiar experiences of their own minds and bodies as not being their own at all–but God’s. They learn to identify some thoughts as God’s voice, some images as God’s suggestions, some sensations as God’s touch or the response to his nearness. They construct God’s interactions out of these personal mental events, mapping the abstract concept ‘God’ out of their mental awareness into a being they imagine and reimagine in ways shaped by the Bible and encouraged by their church community.
I am specifically not talking about this blurring and denial of self, but rather wanting to be far more self-conscious and conscious of my surrounding. I am finding that even a small attention to loving others in the mould of Luke's Samaritan, (see here and here for some outlines) and serious attention to being outside, (see here under the heading The Land) is enabling a slow and painful relearning of my earthling status, and a slow learning that my being rests in being relational— even me the introvert!
This involves a serious challenge to walk away from the violence which mars us, that "evil inclination from our youth." Will I do the serious imagining which will explore beyond a God justifiably violent (in the eyes of Genesis' author) who nonetheless remembers Noah and ceases violence, putting down the bow? What does the Christ say about violence? The Samaritan story seems to repudiate violence altogether.
Is God? is the outrageous claim that there is Agency behind our being, agency which we can "walk before. (Gen 17:1, 24:40, 48:15) It offers us the hope— and the challenge—that our endless search for profit and power does not rule us; that Babel and nuclear holocaust are not inevitable; that we might live with earth and each other.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Genesis Gerhard von Rad
Genesis As Dialogue Thomas L. Brodie
Would you like to comment?
I have turned off the feedback module due to constant spamming. However, if you would like to comment, or discuss a post, you are welcome to email me, and I may include your comments at the bottom of this article.