Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
One of the things you often hear is that after the events of 9/11 ‘the world will never be the same again’. Sometimes cataclysmic events do leave the world a different place, and the Flood narrative tells of such an event. This event, however, has even more far-reaching consequences: it leaves God different.
There is a really difficult text in the lead-up to the Flood story: in Gen 6:6-7 God ‘regrets’ that he has made the world in the first place. I leave the philosophers to argue over whether an all-knowing God can regret anything, but the point here is that the world has lost its innocence, and God must as it were renegotiate his relationship with it. The paradise of Eden has been well and truly lost, and as an act of mercy God decides to put an end to the violence and pain once and for all, whilst in even greater mercy he saves a remnant of his creation with which to start again. Paradise having been lost, though, it is never going to be regained. Human sin has become an indisputable part of earthly life, and so God has to make some new rules about the way in which he is going to cope with it. This is described as him ‘establishing a covenant’ not just with human beings but with every living creature. This is unusual in that here a ’covenant’ is not an deal made by two parties agreeing the terms: it is purely God’s initiative and God’s rules. It sounds much more like a promise than a treaty. He promises that never again will total destruction be the solution to the problem of sin, and in token of this he will use the rainbow to remind himself of this policy.
When seen like this, the new deal tells us some radically surprising things about the nature of God. The first chapters of Genesis show us an all-powerful divine being at whose words creation springs into existence, an immutable unchangeable God for whose pleasure were all created. But now, almost as though he were sadder and wiser, we see his as someone who is moved, who has regrets, who shows mercy rather than legalistic judgement, who makes new promises, and above all who guarantees an ongoing relationship with a less-than-perfect world, but who might need a visual aid to remind him of all this. This really is radical stuff! There is a sense in which we might describe this almost as though God were becoming more human.
This is a highly radical and dangerous thought, but it might also be a helpful one. It isn’t of course, that the events of the Flood changed the nature of God, but it did change the way in which humans thought of him and relate to him. In the church we can get so used to all the ‘omni-‘ stuff we believe about God that it is easy to slip into the belief that the Father is the rather scary and inflexible member of the Trinity, so we need Jesus, the nicer one who really understands real life, so plead our cause for us, or, in some circles, the even nicer, even more human Mary. That God the Father understands the mess which is our world yet remains committed to it gives the lie to this kind of heretical but all too common thought. This passage is one which brings God closer to us. It doesn’t compromise his sense of justice, but it certainly sets it alongside his mercy.
Secondly, this text, calls us in a different direction, to a respect and care for creation. God insists that his covenant is with all living creatures: how can we treat the world with any less respect that our Father does?