Sunday, February 22, 2015

First Sunday of Lent: God, Noah, Us

Genesis 9:8-17                                                       
   8Then 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.”

The story of Noah and the ark is the capstone of the first several chapters of the Bible and makes little sense without those chapters as prologue. The chapters relate that over the generations after Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden the human race had become thoroughly corrupted and sinful.  So perverse did humanity become that in the sixth chapter of Genesis we read that, “The LORD was grieved that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.”
So God decided to clean the earth of its corruption by flood. There was a good man, Noah, whom God told to build an huge ship. Noah was to put aboard a male and female of every species. All this Noah and his family did, and God set loose flood waters which covered the whole earth. “Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died” (Gen 7:22).
After a few months the waters subsided and the ark was grounded. Noah and the animals went forth, Noah worshiped God and God promised:
“Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Gen 8:21-22).
In other words, after the flood nothing about humankind had changed and the world would continue on the same way it had before.
There are some serious questions raised by the Noah story that have no easy answers. Pastor Nathan Nettleton wrote that it would be difficult to find a church person who had never heard of Noah's Ark. Yet it would be almost as difficult to find anyone who can actually explain what the story’s relevance is to us here and now. He wrote,
“Many could perhaps tell you that God sent a flood to wipe out the world, and that a man named Noah built a big lifeboat and took his own family and breeding pairs of every kind of animal on board so that, after the flood, God could make a fresh start for life on earth beginning with them. Beyond that, this story is usually reduced to just an animal story for kids, or used as another battleground for those who want to fight over whether every story in the Bible is factual historical account of an actual event.”
For me, the story, taken at its face reading, is not wholly favorable about God’s goodness. It seems to present God as a marauding tyrant. He causes a flood that destroys all life except for one family safe aboard the ark. Yes, Genesis says that humanity was entirely corrupt and Noah alone was righteous. But even so, God’s destruction of all humankind seems, shall we say, extreme, especially when he also killed all the animals, who presumably could not have been corrupt. In this story, God often seems neither good nor loving on the whole and hardly worthy of worship. This place is not the only place in the Jewish scriptures where God's management of the world is presented harshly. The entire book of Job, for example, bluntly questions both God's competence and goodness.
I personally can spiritually function in a universe governed by a God who might not know quite everything, or who might not be able to control everything, but if God is not totally, wholly, purely good, then there is no choice but despair. If God is not wholly good, we are in the hands of a cosmic trickster no matter what creeds we recite or what claims we make about Jesus or anything else.
In the Noah story, I am shocked at what seems to be God’s murderousness. I am unwilling blithely to say that the people then deserved drowning in the flood. I know my own sin and I know that the sins of humanity in the last hundred years reduce the corruption of Noah’s generation to that of amateurism.
However, despite the shock of God's violent judgment, the story emphasizes God’s goodness over any other characteristic. There is repeated attention to the boarding of the ark, to lists of people and animals and birds that are saved, and to the chronology of the event. Attention centers on salvation rather than on judgment, on what God does to preserve creation.[1]
But so deeply embedded in human beings is sin that at the end of the Noah story, humankind is not changed. The human race, symbolized by (in fact, consisting of) Noah and his family, get off the ark no different than when they went aboard. Noah planted a vineyard, made wine and passed out drunk. When he woke up he condemned one of his children and all that child’s descendants to slavery. There is not the slightest indication in the Noah story that anything about humankind will be different after the flood than before.
It is not human beings whom the flood changes, so what then was the point of the whole drill? This question has vexed Christians for centuries and given employment to legions of religion professors and their doctoral candidates. Unless something has changed at the end of the flood story, then we are left with God as an impulsive mass slaughterer. That is a God whom we would fear, but not love, revere or worship.
So: what is different after the flood, what has changed as a consequence of the flood?
God. God has changed, God is different. I do not mean that God is different in power or character after the flood than before. Indeed, God says plainly in Malachi 3.6, “I the Lord do not change.” But there is a change nonetheless.
God makes promises to humanity after the flood, but human beings make no promises to God in return. God vows never to allow such a catastrophe to overtake the earth again but God neither solicits nor expects any kind of vows from human beings.
Nonetheless, God describes limits on how he will deal with human sin. Since destroying sinners, deserved though the destruction is, didn't destroy sin, God declares he will not repeat it in the future. (The Malachi verse in full supports this: “I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.”)
Having grieved at the state of humankind before the flood, God vows henceforth to endure human wickedness. God decides to bear the human condition of sin and corruption in himself, for the human race is incapable of escaping its sinfulness.
At the end of the Noah story, God has decided to work within human sin and perversity. God promises to stick with the world, come what may in the way of human wickedness. God makes this promise, not in spite of human failure, but because of it. The way into the future cannot depend on human ability; sinfulness so defines humanity that, if human beings are to live, their very existence must be undergirded by the divine promise. Hence, because of human sinfulness, God promises to do all that is necessary to redeem creation.
Noah’s story asks, why does God stand for human sin? It answers: because God promises to save the world, not destroy it. God commits his holy self to enter into the human world of pain to absorb it into God’s self. Hence we have the words of Paul in his letter to the Romans (chapter 3):
23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
So it turns out that the world is not governed by a murderous God after all, but one who is indeed purely good and faithful, even to the point of death on a cross, that the world would be saved by love and not destroyed by violence.

Next week: The only way out of a sinkhole

[1] New Interpreter’s Bible, “Genesis,” by Terence Freitheim

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