“The Lord said to Noah, there’s gonna be a floody, floody…”
Somewhere along the line, people decided Noah’s Ark is a good story for children… I’m not even sure it’s a good story for grownups.
Let me remind you how this story begins: “God saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And God was sorry that God had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved God’s heart. So God said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’” (Gen 6:5-7)
And then, in the next chapter, here comes the floody-floody: “The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered… And all flesh died that moved on the earth… God blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark.” (Gen 7:19-23)
Sure, we get to a rainbow at the end, but – this is a horrible story. As people who would like to believe in a loving God, how do we make sense of an account of divine genocide?
Here’s how I make theological sense of the flood story. I make a couple of assumptions. First, maybe there really was a flood. Now, for many Christians, that goes without saying. But as an Episcopalian, my hermeneutical relationship with the Bible is not literalist – my faith does not bind me to believe everything happened just as the text says it did.
So it’s fair to ask, Was there a flood? And I think maybe there was. Not a worldwide flood, as the story suggests. But big enough to feel universally destructive, for those who survived and remembered. (Imagine life in Houston, Texas, last August, if people didn’t have televisions, radio, internet – might that not have felt as if the entire world were washing away?)
Stories about ancient floods are found in the mythology and scriptures of many Ancient Near Eastern people – as well as in China and North and South America!Which points, not to a worldwide flood – we’d expect some clear geological and archaeological traces of such an event – but to the fact that floods are not uncommon. At a time scale of thousands of years, people are going to experience floods – due to storms, earthquakes, changing water systems, even rising sea levels. It’s entirely possible that ancient peoples living in many corners of the globe had flood experiences lodged deep in their cultural memory that became part of the story they told themselves about the world, the gods, and humanity.
So, assumption #1 is that maybe there really was a flood, sometime in the early prehistory of the ancient Near East, which killed a lot of people and animals, devastated and transformed the landscape, and was so shattering an experience that it became part of the deep story of many peoples of that region.
Assumption #2 is that natural disasters are not expressions of God’s will. I don’t believe that God wasn’t angry at Houston, or Puerto Rico, or New Orleans – or the people of Noah’s time and place. Just as humans were made free, able to will, to wonder, and to choose – well or poorly – so too is Creation free. Scientist and theologian John Polkinghorne writes, “We understand an evolving universe as a creation that is allowed by its Creator ‘to make itself’, to explore and realize its God-given potentiality in its own way. Such a creation seems a greater good than a ready-made world. It is a most fitting creation of the God of love, whose creation could never be just a divine puppet theatre. Yet such a creation has a cost…. [For example,] the anguishing fact that there is cancer in creation is not gratuitous, something that a more compassionate or competent Creator could easily have remedied. It is the necessary cost of a creation allowed to make itself.”
Natural disasters – floods, volcanoes, earthquakes – are, well, natural. They are the result of processes that are intrinsic to the systems of this planet – coming to a point of crisis or excess that causes damage and destruction to humans, animals and plants living within those systems. To be sure, human action is currently intensifying and distorting some of those natural systems. But there were natural disasters before the Industrial Revolution, too.
So what we have, then, in the Flood narratives in Genesis, is a people taking an ancient regional memory and trying to make sense of it in light of their evolving understanding of God. They are trying to make a fearsome memory tell a hopeful story. So for me, the interesting question about the Flood is: what do our long-ago Jewish ancestors do with this story? What do they make it say about the God they are coming to know?
They make it say a number of distinctive things that make the Genesis story different from other flood stories from that part of the world. The flood in Genesis says that there is only one God, who is present and active in the world. This story would be easier to tell if you could believe that one god made people, and another god decided to wipe them out as an act of spite. But the ancient Jews, unlike their neighbors, believed there was only one God. So we have a story in which God changes God’s mind, and is sorry God made humans.
The flood story in Genesis says that God is in relationship with humanity. Our reading this morning has God initiating a covenantal relationship with Noah and his descendants, and thereby, according to the story, all of humanity. Covenant is a really important concept for the Bible, both Old and New Testament. A covenant could be a legal arrangement, a contract, a peace treaty, in the days before systems and institutions existed to enforce any of those things. A covenant was a matter of honor and ethics, and a deep-seated moral and religious obligation. The Old Testament shows us lots of covenants between people and groups – and also a series of covenants between humanity and God; next week we’ll hear about the covenant with Abraham.
But this covenant – the first covenant – is unusual, because instead of outlining mutual obligations, it’s one-sided. Given how the Flood story begins, you might well expect the post-Flood covenant to look like this: IF humans AREN’T wicked and evil in their thoughts and deeds, then I, God, will not destroy you all again. But that’s NOT what this covenant says. God says, I promise never to destroy humanity and all living creatures again. And because I know you’ll really made me mad sometimes, I’m going to make a rainbow, to remind me of my promise. The flood story says that God is not capricious. God makes commitments to us.
And finally, the Genesis flood story says that animals matter too. This is WHY people treat the Flood story as a children’s story: because the boat is full of animals! So cute! So smelly! The story tells us that animals matter in two ways: Noah is charged with rescuing animals from the flood, a breeding pair of every species. And here, at the end of the story, God says, “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and 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… When the rainbow 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.”
This story tells us something we have forgotten, again and again, to our shame and our loss: God is not only God for humans. God is God of and for ALL living things, and all of Creation.
Which brings me to today’s Gospel. You might easily think, today, “Wait, didn’t we just have this Gospel?” Because just last week we had the Transfiguration Gospel, from Mark 9, when God ALSO says, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” And also, earlier in Epiphany, just a month ago, we had Gospel lessons that overlap both the beginning and the end of this passage. The only verses in this text that we haven’t heard in the past six weeks are verses 12 and 13. “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” It’s not a lot of fresh material for a sermon – but on the other hand, Mark packs a lot into a few words, as always.
Listen to one phrase in particular: He was with the wild beasts.
There are lots of animals in the Old Testament, but not many in the New Testament. Lots of fish, and some metaphorical lambs; a donkey, and possibly her colt. But with this little phrase Mark invites our imaginations to something not unlike the scene from Disney’s classic Snow White, where she goes into the forest and her purity and sweetness are such that the forest creatures all gather round and befriend her – birds, squirrels, rabbits, turtles, deer and raccoons.
Only for Jesus, imagine him sitting on a rock, in a dry desert landscape, surrounded by gazelles, hedgehogs, foxes, wild goats, hyraxes – a guinea-pig like creature; a wide variety of lizards and snakes, and maybe a friendly vulture or two.
He was with the wild beasts. This phrase is only in Mark’s Gospel. But it evokes images from elsewhere in Scripture – Places where a restored relationship between humanity and creation is a sign of God’s work. The best-known is the poem known as the Peaceable Kingdom, from chapter 11 in the book of the prophet Isaiah:
“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them… The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
In the book of Hosea, the prophet speaks of Israel’s broken covenant with God, but then turns with hope towards images of restoration, repentance and reconciliation, including this divine promise: “I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety.” (Hosea 2:18)
He was with the wild beasts. I believe that with this little phrase, Mark internally evokes these prophetic images. Here, at the very beginning of his ministry and mission, Jesus, in whom God and humanity are reconciled, also embodies the reconciliation of humanity and creation that God promises and intends – and specifically, the reconciliation of humans and non-human animals.
The framers of the Lectionary wanted me to talk about baptism today. Flood, water, baptism, etcetera. But what I notice in these texts are the animals. The ancient, foundational stories of the Hebrew Bible – Eden and the Flood – tell us that all of Creation and all living things were made by God, and that God is committed – covenanted – to protect and preserve them. And the Gospel of Mark reminds us – so briefly but so provocatively – that God’s intention is to restore that primeval peace and unity.
Where does that point us? Well, where it’s pointing me, this Lent and this spring, is to a renewed attention to love of my neighbors – the ones with feathers, fur, wings or jointed feet, as well as the ones with two legs and opposable thumbs.
Saint Augustine, the great 4th century theologian, wrote: “Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead God set before your eyes the things and creatures that God has made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?”
I hope you’ll join me in taking this season to read that book of Nature with interest, love, and respect. We love our plants, here at St. Dunstan’s – we’ve very attuned to the budding of magnolia and crabapples, the first glimpse of squill or crocus. But let the rainbow covenant and Jesus’ Snow White moment remind us of our kinship with all living things with breath in them. That we, too, are with the wild beasts – created by one God, sharing one world; what affects their well-being, affects ours. We are all in this together. Let us strive to discover God, to seek traces of God’s creativity and God’s delight, in all creation and all creatures; and let us remember that even the stink bug creeping unwelcome across the church carpet is our kin.