The next several weeks will be reflections on the story of Noah and the Ark. This week focuses on the first part of the story: Genesis 6:5-22
Most of us know the story of Noah and the flood. We just heard the first part of the story today and over the next few weeks we will hear the entire story. We often think of Noah’s ark as a pleasant children’s story. We have images of animals going into a boat, God saving Noah and rainbow. What can be wrong with that story? If we dig deeper it becomes a scary story of death and destruction before there is new life.
It’s a familiar story and begins with God looking at the creation. In the beginning God created and saw that it was good. But life happens and people hurt each other, violence occurs and God witnesses this violence. The image that God had of the original creation is destroyed.
If you were listening carefully, you will notice that it sounds like the author is being repetitive. There are two voices in this story, the Yahwistic (written about 950 B.C.E.) and Priestly (written about 550 B.C.E.). The Yahwistic tradition was especially concerned about theology – how the people understood God and it is written as folklore. The Priestly tradition is constructed during the period pf the Babylonian Exile and is concerned with helping people make sense of exile experience. This emphasises that God upholds the cosmic order and “ensures the survival of the world,” and that we are never separated from God. Both of these traditions come through in the story and were originally two separate tellings of the same story. Throughout our biblical story, we find that different people tell the stories differently, with different emphasis.
There’s a temptation to read this story as people are evil and therefore God had to get rid of the humans to get rid of the evil and the story has often been read this way but several commentators wonder if this story has more to say about God than about humans. As God looks and sees the world, W. Lee Humphreys describes God as being in pain and grief because of human behavior. Walter Brueggemann describes God as “a troubled parent who grieves over the alienation.” And finally, Karen Armstrong writes that God is at best “like a petulant child who is tired of the castle he has created with his building blocks and knocks it down. At worst, he appears as like those tyrants and dictators in our own century who have assumed godlike powers and have attempted to purge the world of what they regard as evil.”
These are all quite different images and yet they give us a nuanced view of God. What the images agree on is that God created the earth and saw it was good and that God saw what was happening on earth and it was not good. We would like God to be all powerful so that God is in control and that is certainly what the Priestly tradition tries to tell us. God is in control and God will always save the world…maybe not all humans, but the world certainly. Both Humphreys and Brueggemann’s descriptions of God seem plausible: God is hurt by human suffering and is like a parent watching youngsters go off in a different direction. God is concerned about the path that humans are on. I can live with these suggestions.
Armstrong’s description of God is more troubling. Many of us have watched children build something with lego or blocks and then knock it down. God as a pouty child is an interesting image. But then, likening God to a dictator who is on a purging mission is a terrifying idea. We can look around the world today and see several places where genocide and purging kills are happening. We wouldn’t excuse a dictator who engaged in this action, so how can we excuse God? Can we really imagine God in the role of the one ordering the purging and killing?
What do we do with these images of God? I like to think of God as essentially good and I have trouble reconciling a God who sends a flood and wipes out almost all life with that image. It doesn’t fit and yet I have to deal with the story. One way I address this conundrum is to diminish God’s control. If I want God to be good, then God can’t control everything because a good God wouldn’t send bad things. A good God wouldn’t cause harm. In my mind, I often think that anything bad can’t be the result of God’s action or inaction. Earthquakes, floods, tornados, illness and so forth are just random. We can’t control or prevent these events and neither can God. Human actions that result in violence stem from our lack of community, discrepancies in income, some kind of brokenness or hurt in a person’s life, sometimes it’s just poor choices or bad luck. That’s how I see the world. The bad things are not the result of God. They are either random or the result of our disconnection with God.
I am challenged by an image of God as dictator. That means God is in control and that anyone who isn’t living up to God’s potential for them is eligible for destruction. It means that God does directly punish. Armstrong also notes that if we imagine God as the dictator and excuse God’s behavior, then we can also excuse humans who step into that role.
I don’t think any of us would allow someone who ordered genocide or a purge a pass. So why would we allow God one? If God ordered the flood and wiped out the creation, I don’t want to believe in that God. The choices are either no belief in God at all or to change my belief. I’ve chosen to change my belief. I’ve chosen to change the kind of God I believe in.
That leads to another dilemma which writers of scripture and theologians have struggled with. Do we get to hand pick the characteristics of God that we like and toss out the things we don’t like or don’t want to deal with? If there is someone we struggle to get along with, we don’t get to throw out the behavior or attitude that annoys us. It is still a part of who they are. We can choose to focus on other aspects of their personality but everything about them makes them who they are.
If we are made in God’s image, then possibility that God can do bad things exists. That possibility exists in us. We also have the ability to grow and change. We have the ability to learn from our mistakes. As God interacts with us, God grows and changes. God learns from the experience of the flood.
It’s somewhat tempting to put God in a box and have one image of God but our scriptures are full of different images and the images change over time. Even in this story we see a variety of images. We humans are complex and so it makes sense that the God, whose image we are made in, is also complex even when it’s inconvenient, even when it makes us uncomfortable.
I don’t have an easy or straightforward answer for how we handle these types of issues. Faith was not intended to always be comfortable or easy. There are times when faith may have the ability to comfort and heal but at times faith, and remaining faithful in the midst of violence, natural disasters and illness, may be very challenging.
And so we have Noah watching violence in the world around him. I wonder if he questioned what God was doing. Did Noah challenge God and try to bargain with God to prevent the flood or was he just resigned to the violence and the outcome of death? How often do we look around and see violence or destruction and find ourselves just resigned to it as the way of the world? If Noah, and ourselves, give God a pass on sending the flood, how likely are we to give a pass to others who perpetrate violence in our world.
Over the next owfew weeks we will continue with the story of Noah and the flood. As we continue, I invite you to dig deeper into the story, to think carefully about the characters, how they act and respond to the disaster of the flood. Be uncomfortable in the midst of destruction as we move towards renewal.
. Frank S. Frick, A Journey Through the Hebrew Scriptures (Belmont: Wadsworth, 2003), 96, 100.
. W. Lee Humphreys The Character of God in the Book of Genesis: A Narrative Appraisal (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 65.
. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 77.
. Karen Armstrong, In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 40.
. Karen Armstrong, In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), 46.