Start over Again? and Again?

This reflection is the final installment of four reflections on the story of Noah’s ark. This part focuses on Genesis 8:20-9:17.

We have seen God the destroyer come to remove evil from the world. We have seen God the sustainer save a handful of humans and other creatures. We have watched in horror as the earth is destroyed and we have waited with the creatures on the boat to see what will come next.

Here we find Noah and his family have left the ark. The creatures have been released into this new world. It is a new world—a chance for everyone, including God to start over again. There are phrases throughout this passage that take us back to the creation story. Phrases like “Be fruitful and multiply.” “Fill the earth.” “Every animal, into your hand they are delivered.” So there is a sense here of a new beginning and yet not much has changed.

God seems to affirm that the ability for evil and for hurt lies within all humans. God will never again harm the earth because of humans and yet, the creatures of the earth will be afraid of us. They are being delivered into the hands of humans. What we do with them is a choice: Do we treat the creatures of the earth with respect and compassion or resources to be used? Even through God will not curse the earth again, perhaps by how we live, we humans may be a curse to the earth and the other creatures.

According to the story, God sent the flood (which may or may not be the case) to destroy the evil humans. If we follow where the story leads us, W. Lee Humphreys suggests that nothing has changed and that the whole experience of trying to rid the earth of violence is futile.[1] God learns from this experience that humans contain the capacity for good and evil and there is nothing that God can do about it.

Walter Brueggemann writes that nothing “about humankind has [changed]… What has changed is God. God has made a decision about the grief and trouble of his own heart.”[2] God has realized that, for better or for worse, humans are created in God’s image and that it is sometimes an imperfect image…one in which we are perfectly human.

God has to figure out how to live with the humans created in God’s image and this is where the covenant comes in. Covenant is a binding relationship which carries expectations and commitments. In this passage, God is creating a covenant with the entire creation never to destroy again by a flood. God’s side of the covenant seems to be a commitment to steadfastness and to living with us humans. Noah remains silent in the passage. There is no verbal commitment to this covenant on Noah’s part. Does Noah remain silent because he knows that he will not be able to live up to the expectations? If the flood was supposed to cleanse the evil from the world perhaps Noah already realizes that it didn’t work. Rather than break a covenant he remains silent. The silence also means that in each time and place, humans make the covenant they most need to make. God’s covenant may last an eternity but perhaps the human covenant needs to change for each time and place as we recognize particular needs around us.

But that silence on Noah’s part doesn’t prevent God from making a covenant. Brueggemann writes that “there may be death and destruction….These are not rooted in the anger or rejection of God.”[3] These things occur but they are not “of” God because God’s love and compassion for the earth trumps anger and rejection.

I am drawn to rainbows by their colour and the ways in which they remind me of this story: a sign of God’s promises to all of us. But a rainbow is also in the shape of a bow—a weapon. Weapons have the potential to destroy and hurt but in this case, the bow remains undrawn as sign that God has won a victory over the inclination to punish.[4]

So, where does the Noah story lead us? It leads us to a place where we can trust God’s presence in the midst of the chaos of our lives and world. God’s love is not one of destruction and punishment but a love in which God chooses compassion, second and third chances, opportunities for us to start again and again until we get it right. The Noah story reminds us that the covenant God makes is not with humans alone but with the entire creation and that it is not God that destroys creation but often humans that do the destroying.

We live in a time where there so many ways humans are impacting and destroying creation. Perhaps Noah’s silence is an opening for us to make our own covenant with God. What commitments and expectations will you place on yourself in your relationship with God? What commitments and expectations will you place on yourself in your relationship with creation?

It is an opening for us to choose life for the creation. God has chosen life through the covenant of the rainbow and now it is our turn to make a similar covenant: a covenant to stand with creation—not apart from or over the creation but connected and whole. The flood is an opportunity to begin again. And we are at another moment in time when we can begin again. What will we choose to do with that moment and that covenant?

[1]. W. Lee Humphreys The Character of God in the Book of Genesis: A Narrative Appraisal (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 70.

[2]. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 83.

[3]. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 84.

[4].  Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 84.

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