Why Does God Destroy Some and Not Others?

The story of Noah continues. Noah and his family, along with the animals have shut themselves into the ark. Once they are safely inside rain starts to fall, and our story picks up again in Genesis 7:19-8:5. In this passage, I can almost feel the water rising and see the destruction happening. It is pretty gruesome to imagine all the animals and people that have been destroyed floating around the ark. And still, the rain and water go on. There seems to be no end in sight or time.

gray scale photo of trees

Photo by Ian Turnell on Pexels.com

I imagine Noah and his family finding a routine to their day as they care for the animals entrusted to them. I imagine their despair as they float along. What happens when their supplies run out? Will they just float forever until they all die as well? Has God forgotten them? And just when it seems like this story might have a very depressing ending, God remembers.

God remembers Noah and his family and all the creatures in the ark. Once God remembers, the rain stops and the waters begin to go down. Just as I can imagine and feel the horror and despair rising in the first part of the passage, I can see and feel the relief and release as the creatures in the ark realize that God hasn’t forgotten and they will survive this. Finally, the land begins to reappear, and mountains poke out from under the water.

There are several theological challenges with the Noah story. This passage got me thinking about why only a handful of people and other creatures are saved from destruction. It is a question that we wrestle with throughout scripture. Is God’s saving action for all people, all creation or only a handful of select creatures that meet some criteria known only to God?

To dig into this a bit, I want to be clear that when I talk about saving action, I am speaking in the broadest sense. Salvation has to do with healing and transformation. A continuation of spirit after death may be a component of that action, but I am not primarily concerned with what happens to our spirits after death. When I think about God’s saving action, I am thinking specifically of this creation, God’s relationship to this creation and where humans fit in this relationship. The other thing I need to be clear about as I write this is that I don’t believe in an interventionist God. God is always a presence in the world but doesn’t control the world or what happens.

Sometimes, the Noah story gets distilled down like this: The world was evil. Noah was good therefore God chose to save Noah (and some creatures) and start over again. If we are honest, most of us will admit that we try to live good lives but don’t always do it as well as we like. Most of the time, we cannot categorize people as good and evil. We all have the potential for good, and we all have the potential to destroy.

If we think more closely about the Noah story, we might have to ask ourselves whether we see ourselves as Noah or as one of the people left behind. Most of us would want to see ourselves as Noah. We live good lives and listen for God and try to do what is right. But there’s only one Noah and his family—maybe ten people who end up on the boat. More likely, we are the ones destroyed by the flood since that’s where the majority of people have ended up.

It is uncomfortable to think that we are like the people God (according to the story) destroyed. Most of them were probably not evil. They were ordinary people going about their lives, trying to survive and raise families. Sometimes they were compassionate, loving, honest and just. Sometimes they cheated a bit, lied or stole something. That doesn’t make them evil—just human.

So what are we to do with the idea that God saves some and destroys others? Why were Noah and his family warned about the flood and given an opportunity to escape? I struggle with the idea that God intentionally destroyed so many creatures. I suspect the flood was a natural disaster. Floods, tsunamis, forest fires, earthquakes and other disasters happen regularly and shouldn’t be seen as punishment for sin. They often prompt us to ask the question “why”? The writers of this story asked the question “why” and answered it by saying the world was evil and humanity was essentially sinful. I have yet to find a satisfactory answer to the question of why. Sometimes bad things happen.

There are natural occurrences in the world which are destructive and sometimes it seems senseless. I don’t believe God causes these disasters, but it sometimes seems like God has abandoned the creatures impacted by these disasters.

I think the movement in this passage is important as it moves from seeing the destruction to God remembering. I don’t think God forgot or was off daydreaming even though the text has that type of feel to it. As the rain quit and the waters receded I imagine the people in the ark realizing that God was with them. In any disaster, there is the moment of horror and destruction where it is almost impossible to see anything else. As there is a bit of distance and the chaos starts to right itself, a new reality develops. In this new reality, it might be possible to see God’s presence or start to make meaning out of the event.

I need to believe that even in the midst of whatever disaster is occurring God weeps as much as we do at the destruction that happens. I also believe that God is present in human responses of care, compassion and love. The story Noah should give us pause to reflect on these big theological questions and wrestle with them. I also believe it is ok not to have a complete answer to the question of why. We know that the story of Noah is not the end of God’s action in the creation and that the questions raised in this story continue to be wrestled with throughout scripture and beyond.

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Zacchaeus the Honest Tax Collector

 

It’s a cute song but it doesn’t really get to the heart of the Zacchaeus story in Luke 19. Today, I want to dig a bit deeper into what might be happening. Jesus is continuing to travel around teaching and healing and he arrives in Jericho. There is a chief tax collector who is wealthy. Chief tax collectors contracted with the local administration to collect the taxes in an area. They would pay the amount upfront and then hire tax collectors who went out and collected the money. If there was any cheating or extortion on the taxes it was a benefit to the chief tax collectors. The tax collectors tended to be people who couldn’t find work. Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector. He has paid the taxes up front to the city. He hires people to collect the taxes with the hope that they will bring in enough money for him to break even. Even better would be to make a profit. This is how Zacchaeus lives. There was a stereotype that the chief tax collectors were wealthy because they had collected more taxes than were necessary. (See Social Science Commentary on the Gospels for more detail.)

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus but he was too short to see over the crowd. So, Zacchaeus got an idea and climbed up in a tree. From there he had a great view of what was happening. Jesus comes along and calls out to Zacchaeus. As they walk the crowds follow and they are distressed because they see Jesus associating with someone wealthy who has gained his wealth at their expense. Zacchaeus makes a declaration. In many of our English translations it says something like: half of my possessions I will give to the poor and if I have defrauded anyone I will pay back four times as much. But the English translations miss a nuance. The Greek is in the present tense which means that Zacchaeus already gives half of what he has to the poor. If he realizes that one of his tax collectors has defrauded someone he pays it back four times as much. Zacchaeus is already a good guy but the community doesn’t know this. They see his wealth and make assumptions.

But now they hear Zacchaeus making a claim and they have to rethink what they think they know about him. As the crowd has their image of Zacchaeus shaken they might find new respect for him—a wealthy man who gives away half his goods with asking for recognition and a tax collector who is honest. As the crowd reassess their perception of Zacchaeus he is no longer an outsider. The English translation says that salvation has come. Salvation has its roots in the Greek word salve which means to heal. When people find their place in community they are healed and the community is healed.

Salvation isn’t just for the individual but for the community. We are healed as we find our place in community. We all make assumptions about other people. We lump people in with a particular group without really knowing anything about them. We don’t always know how people think or what is in their hearts. We might not even know the good things they do because they keep it hidden or because we don’t want to see. Seeing something different might unsettle us.

Stereotypes create broken community. Making assumptions about people create broken community. If the community had taken time to get to know Zacchaeus they would have known the he was honest and that he shared his wealth. It wasn’t Zacchaeus who needed healing. Zacchaeus didn’t need to change. The community of people who disliked him needed to be changed.

We all have stereotypes and we all make assumptions. These stereotypes create broken community. We (all of us) are always in need of healing. Like the crowd in the story, we need to listen to our neighbours. We need to listen to the people we don’t know and hear their stories. We need to be open to being transformed so that healing can happen as community is restored.