What God saw
The Flood narrative begins with the reality of our shortcomings. It sees that "every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually" (Genesis 6:5) It makes no attempt to diminish our responsibility for our behaviour.
A quick read can lead to dismissal of the text; outrage at a God who would destroy so many innocent lives— we easily forget that in this story there are no innocent apart from Noah. Such outrage glosses over the diagnosis of the human predicament as understood by Genesis— all flesh… only evil continually. The story returns to this at the end: God says, "I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth."
I am inclined to ask Genesis if my heart is only evil continually— I hope there are moments when I am a little beyond that— but the whole narrative of Genesis to this point insists that our evil is a basic human trait. It is all of us. We are the problem.
After posting this article you are reading, I wrote the following:
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.
In my own re-reading and seeking to understand the text more fully, I found chaos and contradiction in the story. The numbers are confusing, even contradictory. There is repetition that seems unnecessary to our ears. God rules with a supremacy we find difficult to separate from sheer despotism. "At best the text is perplexing," Brodie says at one point! (pp169) For any sensitive reader who seeks to be open to the text, there are no easy answers in this text; it is not a simple narrative, and perhaps that is the point: There is no easy answer to our human predicament.
We live in a different age to the author. Where the Genesis author sees that something has happened, causing us to lose paradise, to be locked out of the garden, we see that something is preventing us entering the garden; that is, from achieving paradise, or becoming all we could be. This does not mean that the story no longer speaks to us: We will ask if his looking back finds answers or insights which speak to those of us looking forward. In addition to this, I am not sure how much the author really thought Adam and Eve were really the literal original couple, and how much he was writing a story that was in tune with the stories and traditions of the time to carry truth— did the author really think Cain married his sister?. I suspect I have been culturally conditioned to vastly underestimate the wisdom of the author and the skilfulness of his art.
The point I am seeking to make here is that perplexing and apparently chaotic text should not be assumed to be primitive or even "slavish… mechanical juxtapositioning" of stories. (Brodie pp182) It could be— I think it is— a sophisticated literary technique to deal with the chaos and ambiguity of our selves, and with the mystery of our origins.
For example, we live in a great contradiction, which could be reflected in the dual stories of Lamech. We are biological animals, created from the same earth as all the others. We inherit an evolutionary impulse to survive at all costs, which, if we are to become human, must be overcome. If we must survive then we will inevitably be violent to climb above others; if we must survive then all things are allowable.
But the will to survive undermines our will to be human, because, in the end, if I must survive— the evolutionary imperative,
then I cannot have, give, and be the kind of compassion and relationship which would lead to the garden / paradise to which our humanity aspires. This is the imperative without which we cannot be human.
Genesis describes the primal humanity of Genesis 2— what we would call the aspiration of full humanity— as "naked and not ashamed." (Genesis 2:25) This is a metaphor for complete openness and full relationship. Nothing is withheld, and there is nothing of us needing protection from the other. Genesis 3:10 describes what the author thought was lost, and what we would say is the situation we cannot yet escape or overcome: "I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself." Compassion is always limited if I must survive. When we must all survive, then the world is violent and afraid. We clothe our selves not for modesty but for protection from the other with whom we are not at one.
We see all this in God's assessment of the situation just before the flood.
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 6:11-13)
When there is only limited compassion, any human flourishing is finally at the expense of others. This is our world. Whether it be the Brights, Donald Trump and the Koch brothers, or even me writing in comfort, we are all dependent on a social and economic system which exploits and enslaves. We are building our paradise, our local attempt at recreating the garden of Eden for ourselves, upon a rotten foundation. (Paradise is the Greek and Latin for garden.) We are building and living our lives upon slaves for whom there is no rest. (Noah according the text, is born to bring rest. Cf Genesis 5:29)
This rotten foundation includes the chocolate produced by child labour, the tantalum in our mobile phones, and the workers locked into jerry-built firetrap factories in Bangladesh. Distance means nothing here; it removes no guilt, because our life here is built upon that misery and injustice.
If anything, that distance is a distraction from the closer evil which exists in our own cities, where immigrants live multiple families per house, where students are reduced to hot-bedding, working below the minimum wage in that hell where their legal work hours are limited, and they are forced to break the law to survive, for which we may deport them. We need them to clean our toilets and pick our crops, yet victimise and blame them when they refuse to starve. Gina Rinehart talked about our workers becoming too expensive— look at the Africans working for two dollars a day, she said— but our system lives off the poor at the bottom, and we are the beneficiaries.
Nothing has changed in history. We look at human rights and, appropriately, have some pride in what we have achieved. But all of this applies only to those at the top of the social order— as it has always done. We can point at Magna Carta, for example, but has this really taken power from the kings and given it to "the people," or have some of us become kings of a sort, while globalisation by the west, which starts with the seagoing empires of the Dutch, Spanish, and English, has simply offshored the slaves?
In all of this, many of us make a choice which Genesis refuses. We make light of evil. We under-estimate it. Christians taking this route typically reduce evil to a narrowly defined set of personal sins, and are blind to, or ignore, our corporate complicity in all the rest. Evil is purportedly solved by a personal bargain where God lets us off by tipping the violence we know and confess we deserve, upon Jesus. In other words, evil and violence are not dealt with, but deflected and left unsolved. And our life can go on much as it was, with a few local modifications and some moral window dressing.
Seeing the barbarity of this impoverished Christianity, which is so easily subverted for political and monetary gain— look at white male evangelicals supporting Donald Trump or the christian supporters of Pauline Hanson— many folk happily write off the whole religious enterprise. But a self proclaimed enlightenment, a "naturalistic worldview, free of supernatural or mystical elements" can easily follow the same pattern as the faux Christianity which Genesis rejects. For some of these people the scapegoat is the superstitious or mystical person— Religion poisons everything, Christopher Hitchins proclaimed, and there is an easy assumption that those who are enlightened will rise above our evolutionary shortcomings. Genesis might think that is an act of faith not far removed from the magic of a God who lets us off by sacrificing his son.
This approach, along with impoverished Christianity does not even approach the serious questions of whether modern industry is sustainable when ecological and resource costs are included in the accounting. (See here and here) If industry is bankrupt— if it owes more than it produces— so is our whole culture.
And this approach is blind to the fundamental disparities upon which our culture is built. Academic scholarship itself, the ability to publish the Brights website, or this one you are reading, are all the product of affluence. Affluence means a certain complicity with, and benefit from, the ruling power, so that we escape being the slave at the bottom. Being able to afford the time space and freedom to work on these things is indicative of complicity in the system built on slavery.
As modern readers of Genesis our only hope is to emulate its author: to be the chastened person serendipitously freed from exile and slavery for a time, living in a moment of local peace, but always aware of our complicity with chaos at the level of our very humanity.
So Genesis' diagnosis of the great problems of the world is human evil, which it sees as somehow primal. It is not even removed in the renewal of earth that comes from the Flood. After the flood, God still sees that "the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth." (Genesis 8:21) Nothing about us changes with the flood; it is God who changes!
I have engaged the issue of our evil with discussions about violence and power. Genesis relates these to the absolute heart of our relationships. Firstly, evil is never a problem apart from us: the ground is cursed because of adam; the earth cries out about the blood of Abel. We talk about human evil as distinct from the evil caused by storms or earthquakes. Genesis does not make that distinction; if anything, our evil causes what we today might call natural evils!
In the beginning, God gives the assurance of our survival over chaos.
28God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ 29God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. (Genesis 1:28-29)
We are the factor that allows chaos to return. The flood is prefaced by the story of the "sons of God" and the nephilim. (… they took wives for themselves of all that they chose… 6:2b) Brodie (pp169) says of this
Cosmic chaos, especially in marriage, is how the story begins. Some form of superhumans ("sons of God") indulge in a limitless number of bizarre marriages with human women.
Already we have seen Lamech take two wives, who are specifically named, and then named again in the context of murder. (Brodie claims that the later multiple wives were not the rule for the patriarchs but something done under "pressure: Abram from Sarai (16:1-2); Jacob from Laban (29:20-30)" )
In the beginning there is joyful recognition of "bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh." This sours into the damaged relationships where "your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you…" And the decline continues to the time of the flood. The evil of violence and abusive power penetrates to the heart of us. It is a product of our most basic relational dysfunction. Genesis tells us we will not be able to address societal ills and violence unless we address the ills of our most basic relationships. We cannot hope to do well for the world if we do not also confront our own personal relationships. Neither will we be able to insulate our personal relationships from a wider life or career in which we do not seek to live and work justly and compassionately; we will bring our work home.
In contrast to Lamech, Noah has only one wife. Quoting Niditch, Brodie says, "The conjugal couple is the foundation of social and cultural relationships for the writers of Genesis. Even [in]the renewed chaos of the flood… social order remains afloat on the ark in the form of Noah and his wife, his sons and their wives." (Brodie pp176-177)
[There is no argument here to uphold the status quo of marriage in Australia. The issue in Genesis is not about gender, but about relationship; can we safely be naked, or are we afraid of each other? Measuring and validating our most intimate relationships by gender instead of by love is itself part of the violence which is our problem.
By the end of the flood there has been a certain renewal of the world. God pushes back the chaos.
Noah and his wife begin again as a "first couple." The earth is no longer cursed: ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth…' But some things cannot be undone. The author recognises that we have lost our relationship with the animals. Now they go in dread of us. The reality of murder is accepted. (Genesis 9:1-7) Hence, God's diagnosis remains: the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.
In a few short verses Noah is
drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent.22And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 3Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backwards and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. (Genesis 9)
Whether this was also an incident of sexual violence is open to question. As Brodie says, Genesis is "not shy" in recounting such stories (pp192) so the incident reflects more than an assault. Brodie says of Genesis 3 and 9
The trouble starts not with nakedness, but with an intrusive visitor… Then the intrusive visitors, the serpent and Ham, spoke to others, enticing them. But the reactions are diverse. While the tree's looks caused the couple to give way to the serpent, the two brothers, Shem and Japeth, resisted Ham/Canaan and his invitation to look. Unlike the couple, the two brothers have a healthy sense of limits. (pp192)
And unlike Cain, they master the sin lurking at the door.
Life as we know it has begun. We can choose how we live. And because God has hung up the bow of war, (Genesis 9:8-17, von Rad pp134) we live in a state of blessèdness and hope. Brodie notes that in the original curse of Genesis 3, the hope is "obscure;" for all the damage it has done and will do, the serpent's head will be crushed. (3:15) But in Genesis 9 the blessing is clear and confident. Despite Ham
Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.
27 May God make space for Japheth,
and let him live in the tents of Shem;
and let Canaan be his slave.’ (Genesis 9:26)
The enmity of Israel for the people of Canaan is interwoven with this text. "In biblical tradition, "Canaan" often evoked an evil adversary. Yet evil is not supreme." (Brodie pp 191)
We have in raw form the questions and the understandings of our world and ourselves which I learn from my daily experience and from the words of Jesus: There is an ambiguity about life; is it blessing or curse? There is also, from our perspective as creatures, an ambiguity about God; is God for us or, like the gods of Babylon, for God's self? Genesis answers that life and the world are good and blessèd. God is for us. But we can reject the gift.
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
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