Today’s Genesis lesson is the end of a story that’s at least casually familiar to just about everyone. Somebody at some point decided that the story of Noah and the Ark was a great story for children – because kids like animals, and boats, right? But it’s actually a pretty scary and theologically difficult story….
The Flood story is hard to understand fully on its own because it is in conversation with other ancient Near Eastern texts and beliefs. It is pretty clearly a re-working of other ancient flood stories, to make that core narrative fit and advance the monotheistic beliefs of the people who will become Israel. Probably all these stories began with trying to make sense of some actual flood of the deep past – back when humans were first starting to make meaning through story.
This is also one of the parts of the Bible where you can really see the seams where different received traditions were stitched together. For example, we know that Noah was supposed to bring a breeding pair of every kind of animal into the ark, but in some places the text also mentions seven pairs of certain animals. This is an old, strange, chewy part of the Bible.
The story begins in Genesis chapter 6: “The Lord saw that the evil of the human creature was great on the earth and that every scheme of his heart’s devising was only perpetually evil. And the Lord regretted having made the human on earth and was grieved to the heart. And the Lord said, ‘I will wipe out the human race I created from the face of the earth, from human to cattle to crawling thing to the fowl of the heavens, for I regret that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.”
The verses just before this are part of the setup, as well. Some godlike figures are wandering around the earth having children with human women. Those demigod children, the Nefilim, become the heroes of yore. If you’ve studied Greek mythology or the works of Rick Riordan, this might sound familiar. So part of what’s happening here is also that God is putting the kibosh on all that.
Our 1 Peter text is actually talking about those troublesome Nefilim. Stories about those demigod figures, who were chaotic neutral at best, had really taken off during the centuries just before the time of Jesus. The Book of Enoch, written in this time, is one source. It describes how the Nefilim caused trouble on earth, teaching humans how to do sorcery and make weapons. So God confined these troublesome beings in darkness under the earth – though some of them could still walk the earth in spirit form and, among other things, play the role of an Accuser, one who tempts and tests people. In Hebrew the word is a shatan – or Satan, in the Anglicized version.
So the cryptic middle part of our 1 Peter text seems to be talking about Jesus, after the Resurrection, going on some kind of errand of mercy to those imprisoned Nefilim – perhaps letting them know the good news and the bad news: they are now free, but they are also under his authority, forever!
Anyway. So: Humans are terrible, constantly plotting evil against one another, and the Nefilim are only making it worse, giving humans more tools and more power to do evil, so God decides to wipe the slate clean.
Then comes the part everybody knows. “The Lord said to Noah, you’re gonna build an arky, arky… The animals, they came in, they came in by twosies, twosies… It rained, and rained, for forty daysies, daysies…”
Most children’s versions of this story tend to glide right over the fact that this flood was understood as God intentionally wiping out all of humanity because they were so awful to each other.
The story begins to end in Genesis chapter 8. The ark has been afloat for 150 days, when God sends a wind over the earth and the waters begin to subside. It takes a while for that much water to drain away. But eventually the dove that Noah sends out brings back a twig with a green leaf on it: a sign that somewhere, the land is dry enough for plants to grow again.
More weeks go by, and finally, finally, Noah and his family and all the creatures are able to leave the ark. And first thing, Noah builds an altar and makes an offering to the Lord. And God says to Godself, “I will not again damn the soil on humankind’s account. For the devisings of the human heart are evil from youth. And I will not again strike down all living things as I did. As long as all the days of the earth: Seedtime and harvest and cold and heat and summer and winter and day and night shall not cease.”
Compare that with what God says out loud to Noah in our text today: “I will establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the Flood, and never again shall there be a Flood to destroy the earth.”
Taken on its own it sounds like mercy, even repentance on God’s part. With the addition of God’s inner monologue, we get an element of … resignation? Humans are what they are: capable of both great good and great evil. Having made us in God’s own image, creative, curious, and free, God is stuck with us.
God seems to see that it’s both unfair and pointless to harm the earth and its creatures in order to try to discipline humanity. It’s not a very effective deterrent!
The promise God makes to humans and creatures here is called the Noahic Covenant – which is hard to say, so I’m going to say, the Covenant of Noah. This year the Sunday lectionary in Lent gives us a series of covenants in our Old Testament readings. We’ll break the pattern next week, but after that we’ll explore covenant with Abraham, Moses, and Jeremiah.
The Covenant of Noah is the broadest and simplest of all the Old Testament covenants. It’s more or less unconditional. And it’s made with all humans and indeed all living things. And the promise is simple: God will never again use a flood to wipe everyone out. (Note that God definitely leaves some wiggle room. As the old song says: God gave Noah the rainbow sign; no more water, fire next time!)
This whole story is definitely part of the early history of God. While Biblical scholars increasingly believe that many Old Testament texts were actually written down around the time of the Babylonian Exile, six centuries before the birth of Jesus, give or take, they contain material that is much older – and in the case of the Flood stories, probably much, much older. This bit about God having a bow, for example – this is a very anthropomorphic God, who has human weapons. It is certainly in tension with how God is described in later Old Testament texts.
It is OK to choose to hold this story at arm’s length. To say, What’s interesting about this story is how it shows the ancient Israelites beginning to define their understanding of the Divine over against the beliefs of neighboring peoples. To take it, in other words, not as a story of divine genocide but as a story of a people on a journey to a new understanding of the Holy – a journey whose LATER chapters we may find much more recognizable as the God we know in Jesus Christ.
But I think there could be something for us, something we need to hear and receive, in the Covenant of Noah.
First, I love that this covenant is with all living things. Reading the Flood story start to finish: there’s a strong sense that whatever we’re facing, we’re all in it together. Survival and flourishing is for all, if it’s for any. Even when God gives Noah and his descendants permission to use some animals for food, there are conditions on that – conditions that point to the unity and the sacredness of all life.
There’s just the hint of a gesture towards the covenant of Noah in today’s Gospel. I love Mark’s account of Jesus’ wilderness time. It’s so spare and yet so evocative. “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by the Accuser; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”
He was with the wild beasts. The Greek word is Therion. It really means beasts, with similar associations to those in English. “Wild animals” would’t capture the implications of danger, fear, savagery. Other uses of the same word in the New Testament are neutral or negative: a poisonous snake who bites Paul; a slur against people from Crete; and the many terrifying apocalyptic metaphorical beasts of the book of Revelation.
But here: Jesus is with the wild beasts. Not metaphorical or apocalyptic but just the creatures of the Judean wilderness. Snakes and lizards, raptors and rodents. There’s no sense of danger in the text. Artists who have depicted Mark’s version of Jesus in the wilderness tend to imagine the animals just the way I do: kind of keeping Jesus company, in this long lonely difficult time of wrestling with vocation and destiny.
There’s certainly an evoking of Eden, here – of the time when everything was new, and humans and animals had not yet learned to hate or fear or use one another. But God’s promise to Noah hovers over this scene too. Any deliverance, any renewal that God offers to humanity, God offers to other living things too. We are all in this together. Salvation is for all, if it’s for any.
And then… there’s reading this story in a time of pandemic illness. We might well feel as if we’re living through another purge of human life. Another cleansing of the earth through mass destruction. God gave Noah the rainbow sign; No more water – virus next time.
I want to take a little detour here into legal language and discuss the term “Act of God.” Legally speaking, an Act of God is one of a category of events that may mean that someone can fail to fulfill a legal contract without consequence. Here’s one list, from a very useful page on the subject: “[Neither party] shall be responsible for any loss or damage, or delay or failure in performing hereunder arising from: act of God, act of war, act of public enemies, pirates or thieves, arrest or restraint of princes, rulers, dictators, or people…. [etc., etc.]… or riot or civil commotion.”
An Act of God specifically is used to refer to catastrophic natural events. Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods. Possibly pandemics. Basically: any large-scale disaster that people could not reasonably have foreseen or prevented.
There is and will doubtless continue to be very active exploration of the limits of “act of God” language in the legal world, with respect to both pandemic and climate disasters.
But let’s turn back towards theology now. Act of God is a legal term. But it’s also crossed over into how people casually talk and think about big, catastrophic events. A lot of us implicitly think of, say, a shattering winter storm that paralyzes the southern United States, or a pandemic illness that has killed nearly half a million Americans, as an Act of God.
But in fact, BOTH climate change AND the massive human and economic impact of the Covid pandemic were things that could reasonably have been foreseen and prevented, or at least minimized and mitigated. In both cases, there are people who have been predicting them for decades and offering concrete proposals about how we could blunt their impact and cost – and they’ve largely being ignored. Because humans, and especially governments, are not great about investing resources to prepare for future risks.
And once it became clear that both of these large-scale disasters were happening, there have been many smart people speaking up about how we could make them less bad. How fewer people and creatures and systems could be harmed. And again, many of those with the power to implement those ideas, have not.
God promises Noah that God will not destroy humanity. No matter how bad we are. No matter how persistent our tendency to harm one another.
What if we just took God at God’s word? What if we took seriously that this ancient, fundamental covenant is still in effect? God is not here to hurt us. God wants us to live. God wants us to flourish. Jesus tells us: I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.
If we really believed that, right down to our toes, we might ask different questions about the so-called acts of God that dominate the news. Instead of asking, What did we do to make God angry?, or Why doesn’t God seem to care?, we might ask, What people and systems are opposing God’s will for life for all God’s children and creatures? And, Where is God already at work in people and systems working for better? Working for life?
To take as a given that God is on the side of life and flourishing might shape not only how we view the great events of the day, but our own daily lives. It might mean, for example, that we choose a Lenten practice that enlarges us rather than diminishing us.
That still might mean giving something up – if the something we give up (or work towards giving up) is something that binds and burdens us, that drains or constrains us, that distorts our relationships or limits our choices.
It might mean that instead of giving something up, we take something on: a practice or habit that calls to us, that has something to give us. Something we’ve been wanting to do but just haven’t managed to make space. Maybe this season is time to make that space.
It might mean that we look at the state of our hearts and souls right now and decide that our Lenten discipline in the year of our Lord 2021 is to keep surviving this. Just keep watching the days getting longer, the average temperature increasing, the birds starting to return. If that’s what you can do in Lent this year: do that, beloveds.
The church’s observance of Lent is heavy with language of self-examination and repentance, of fasting and self-denial. That is important work. Taking a good hard look at ourselves and discerning where it’s time for us to change or heal or grow is part of the core of Christian living.
But let us undertake that work knowing that we do so in the hands of a loving God who wants life for us – abundant life.