We start to read Genesis with questions about the righteousness of God, and particularly, questioning the goodness of a God who would destroy the whole earth. This question is a stumbling block. How could you "believe in" a God who would do that?
We forget the situation of Israel. In Israel the Flood IS. Israel did not invent the Flood. Israel simply knew, along with all other people, that the Flood had happened. It was a part of the accepted cosmology of the time, just as we all know about The Big Bang and about our evolutionary origins…
Given that this is how things were, Israel could only ask, "What was God's role? How did this happen? Is God to be trusted? Does God love us? These are obvious questions; we ask them today. "If we have evolved just like the other animals, is there anything special about us? Is God to be trusted? Is God? Often people conclude that God is not.
Because we who claim an allegiance to God today forget the generally accepted background of the time, we are blind to the issues that Noah's story deals with, and to the phenomenon of the return of Israel from Exile. Israel was asking startlingly modern questions at a time in its history when it could have seemed life was all down to chance; when it could have seemed that the interplay of world politics was tossing their nation around like a boat on a flood, and where survival was pure chance— the luck of the Gods. Either God was not involved, or was powerless, or did not care, or had abandoned them— what was going on? Was there any hope for the future? How could God be good!?
My reading of Genesis, and of Noah, is that Israel affirmed God's love and faithfulness, and hammers home a claim we address far too easily. The background narrative of our time is confident that we can run, and fix, things ourselves. We who say along with Paul that "there is no one who is righteous, not even one" (Romans 3:10) are still hugely infected with the confidence of our age. But in Genesis there is no question of our sin: the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth (9:21)
The narrative has a dim view of the human heart. The question is not whether people are “good-hearted” in the sense we call “nice,” but whether in the deep places of life, human persons and the human community are capable of saving themselves. Can human persons transcend calculated self-interest which inevitably leads to death? Is the source of new life ordained in our bodies? Or is humankind dependent upon a gift of grace which we cannot give to ourselves nor even to each other? Our answers to these questions have largely been self-deceiving. Freud has understood about our capacity for self-deception. Marx has seen clearly our fascination with our own interests. This narrative permits the believing community to create an island of candor in a “flood” of self-deception. The candid vantage point permits a glimpse of the human imagination as it actually is. (Brueggemann pp82).
I have certainly experienced Paul preached in a way that is abusive; people were left lessened by the teaching of their sinfulness and not opened to the love of God. But I cannot ignore the heart of our modern era, which is the same heart Genesis recognised: the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth. (Genesis 8:21b) We too easily dismiss this claim.
… the Christian commitment to the uniqueness of the person conceived and realized through constitutive relations with other persons is lost in the ruthless liberal presumption that our task is to expand our individual domains limited only by contractual agreements made to insure fairness. The result is an inequity that "gives rise to endless discontents" which spill over into atavistic assertions of absolute identity of race, nation, religion, gender, sexuality, disability and so on… Liberalism goes against the grain of our humanity and the universe itself because it is based on the presumption that life has no telos other than the arbitrary desires we impose on the world to make us feel at home. From a liberal perspective, all life is finally materially determined whose recognition cannot help but result in a pervasive nihilism. (Stanley Hauerwas summarising Milbank and Pabst)
20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt-offerings on the altar. 21And when the Lord smelt the pleasing odour, the Lord said in his heart, ‘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.’
God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. 2The 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.
4Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. 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.
7And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.’
8 Then 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.’
Genesis is reacting against, and correcting, the stories of the time. There is a great contrast drawn between God and the gods of Babylon. Nahum Sarna notes here that although "the gods smelled the sweet savor" of the sacrifice made by Utnapishtim
in the biblical account there is nothing remotely resembling the repugnant sequel of the Gilgamesh version that "the gods crowded like flies" around the burnt offering. Clearly, this is meant to be taken literally, for the pagan gods, being subservient to matter, were thought to be in need of material sustenance. One of the universal beliefs of paganism was that the gods required food and drink to sustain their immortal and supramundane quality. Unlike Noah, Utnapishtim offered a libation as well as an animal sacrifice. The destruction of mankind by the flood had deprived the gods of food and drink for a prolonged period; hence, their immoderate, greedy, response… (Sarna pp54 )
whereas in the Gilgamesh story the sacrifice is the prologue to quarrels and mutual recriminations among the gods, in the Bible it is introductory to the divine blessing of man and the covenant made with him. (Sarna pp 55)
The placement of the story of the sacrifice is startling. We see God reiterating the Genesis 6 statements about the inclination of the human heart in the midst of a promise to remain faithful to humankind. Sacrifice becomes, according to Sarna "signifying divine acceptance of man's (sic) attempt to find conciliation with his Maker." Despite our universal evil inclination, God will stay true. Nothing about us has changed:
the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth (9:21)
every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually (6:5b)
It is God who has changed.
Remember that this follows a story where it is shown absolutely that the Flood is not the result of arbitrary Gods (The hearts of the Great Gods moved them to inflict the Flood. Gilgamesh, Tablet 11) who were then terrified by what they had done.
The gods were frightened by the Flood,
and retreated, ascending to the heaven of Anu.
The gods were cowering like dogs, crouching by the outer wall.
Ishtar shrieked like a woman in childbirth,
the sweet-voiced Mistress of the Gods wailed:
'The olden days have alas turned to clay,
because I said evil things in the Assembly of the Gods!
How could I say evil things in the Assembly of the Gods,
ordering a catastrophe to destroy my people!!
No sooner have I given birth to my dear people
than they fill the sea like so many fish!'
And at the end, they squabble over responsibility. The god Enlil
… was filled with rage at the Igigi gods:
'Where did a living being escape?
No man was to survive the annihilation!' (Gilgamesh, Tablet 11)
The people who lived with this story knew the gods did not care for them.
Israel was, by contrast, told the world had been a place where humanity had constantly and increasingly crossed all the boundaries that preserved life.
The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind 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. (6:5-6)
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 (Genesis 7:11-13)
Yet this God, although cut to the heart, remembered Noah, and the waters receded. The Flood was not the flood of Babylon. God is not the gods of Babylon.
The story overflows with promise. Every and all are repeated constantly. "God blessed Noah and his sons, " and the repetition piles up to show this applies to everyone and everything for all time. The curse is repealed: "I will never again curse the ground because of humankind…." and the story of creation is repeated. There is a new beginning. Noah and his sons, and their descendants— even the invisible women of the world— even the plants and the animals, are blessed in words that reflect the first creation:
for in his own image
God made humankind.
7And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it. (9:6-7)
The word covenant is repeated: God has joined God's self to us. God chooses to do this.
Human life is given its sacred status: three times God says "I will require a reckoning for human life." This is not primitive vengeance. In its context it is a massive affirmation of individual human preciousness in a world wracked by prowling powers and empire, and living in fear of capricious arbitrary Gods. Whereas we blame our ecological crisis on ideas of subduing the earth, this is a promise of survival and flourishing in a world where no such thing was guaranteed.
In the Gilgamesh epic, the Gods eventually bless Utnapishtim, but make he and his wife gods who dwell apart from humanity. (Sarna pp56) But in Genesis, Noah and his wife become the parents of us all. We all live under the blessing of God.
God places the bow in the sky. Whenever it rains we are called to remember the chaos our living for ourselves outside the boundaries of a life lived with God can unleash on the earth. (Sarna pp55) says
The very word mabbul, translated "Flood," is now recognized as having denoted originally the heavenly, or upper, part of the cosmic ocean. "The fountains of the great deep" are none other than the primeval sea. In other words, the Deluge is directly connected with Creation. It is, in fact, the exact reversal of it. The two halves of the primordial waters of chaos which God separated as a primary stage in the creative process, were in danger of reuniting. To the Bible, the Flood is a cosmic catastrophe.
Sarna then draws his conclusion
Now this kind of universalistic terminology, and this concept of the Flood as a returning to primeval chaos, has profound moral implications. For it means that in biblical theology human wickedness, the inhumanity of man to man, undermines the very foundations of society. The pillars, upon which rests the permanence of all earthly relationships, totter and collapse, bringing ruin and disaster to mankind.
But God promises chaos will not be unleashed again. The " … symbol of divine bellicosity and hostility has been transformed into a token of eternal reconciliation between God and [humanity…]
In the Gilgamesh epic as one of the gods observed the sacrifice she
lifted up her jewelled necklace and swore that she would ever be mindful of the days of the flood and never forget them. However, not only is this act not accompanied by any promise or assurance about mankind's future, but worse still, the oath came from the lips of just that member of the Mesopotamian pantheon most notorious for faithlessness. (Sarna pp59) (Beletili is associated with Ishtar; eg, see here.)
By contrast, in Genesis, God swears to be faithful. Whenever it rains and we see the bow, it is also a sign that God has sworn blessing for us.
We can now return to my excerpt from Brueggemann's Genesis about the author's "dim view of the human heart."
This narrative permits the believing community to create an island of candor in a “flood” of self-deception. The candid vantage point permits a glimpse of the human imagination as it actually is… The statement about humankind is kept in close connection to the passion and responsive grief of God. What distinguishes God in this narrative from every other god and from every creature is God’s deep grief. That grief enables God to move past his own interest and to embrace his creature-partner in new ways. (Brueggemann pp82)
In this post-flood decree of creation, the sanctity of human life is established against every ideology and every force which would cheapen or diminish life. “God deems himself violated in the violation of these persons” (Calvin). (Brueggemann pp83)
Here is a miracle: God grieved to the heart, God with every reason and every justification to wipe us out, chose not to do so. And this will continue.
The one-to-one connection of guilt and punishment is broken. God is postured differently. From the perspective of this narrative, there may be death and destruction. Evil has not been eradicated from creation. But we are now assured that these are not rooted in the anger or rejection of God. The relation of creator to creature is no longer in a scheme of retribution…. [Indeed, T]he promise of God is that he will not again be provoked to use his weapon, no matter how provocative his creation becomes. (Brueggemann pp84 The emphasis is mine)
All of this is possible because God has remembered Noah. There is nothing casual or accidental in this remembering; it is a deliberate choice to preserve this man from being destroyed by the discreating chaos of flood.
But the gospel of this God is that he remembers. The only thing the waters of chaos and death do not cut through (though they cut through everything else) is the commitment of God to creation. His remembering is an act of gracious engagement with his covenant partner, an act of committed compassion.
Above all, Job 14:13 articulates the conviction that God’s memory is the last ground of hope in the realm of death. Job pleads:
Oh that thou wouldest hide me in Sheol,
that thou wouldest conceal me until thy wrath be past,
that thou wouldest appoint me a set time, and remember me!
Thus Paul Tillich has rightly discerned (albeit with his perspective of idealism) this theme in the face of death: “Is there anything that can keep us from being forgotten? That we were known from eternity and will be remembered in eternity is the only certainty that can save us from being forgotten forever. We cannot be forgotten, because we are known eternally, beyond past and future (The Eternal Now, 1963, pp. 25). The flood not only has no memory. It means to destroy memory (cf. Ps. 6:5) and set us in a world of utter amnesia. But the flood will not have its way. Yahweh will not be “brain-washed” by the flood. (Brueggemann pp85)
We live in an era of grave crisis, with much of the west in denial, still brainwashed by the consumer society's message that our remembrance, our significance, and our fulfilment, will come through acquiring material goods. In Jesus' day Roman soldiers could arbitrarily march into your village; today's empire sends drones. Drought and famine were a constant fear; today, climate extremes and rising seas are already a part of our reckoning. We do not know what will happen. But Jesus' God and hope was, from the beginning, a God for us, faithful, and sworn not to reject us despite our self deceiving rebellion.
No matter what happens, I am remembered. Or, as Paul says
I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8)
I am remembered.
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 Walter Brueggemann
Understanding Genesis Nahum Sarna
The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 11
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