Old Testament Lectionary

For those who want a change from the Gospel

Easter 6 – Gen 8:20 – 9:17

The New Normal

The flood story, of which we have our final thrilling instalment this week, is a story full of paradoxes. It is clearly presented as a new creation, a fresh start for the earth and the human race, but it isn’t really a case of washing everything nasty away and starting again from scratch, and certainly not of God washing his hands of us. As with the Corona pandemic, there is no doubt at all that when this is over things are going to be different – we will have to discover the ‘new normal’, and we don’t yet really know what that will look like.

So after the flood, things didn’t just go back to the way they were, they were different – indeed it almost seems that the unchanging God is different. Consider these paradoxes as we link the Flood narrative to the Creation stories:

  • The God who told the waters of chaos ‘So far but no further!’ and separated them has allowed them to return again, but has then got rid of them a second time.
  • The God who created the world and called it ‘very good’ now declares that ‘every inclination of the human heart is evil’. And yet he commits himself to it.
  • The God who has saved the lives of animals now allows them to be sacrificed and eaten.
  • The God who has destroyed almost all human life now calls for the death penalty.
  • Once again, all creation is commanded to be fruitful and to multiply.

What are we to make of this paradoxical God? It would, of course, be complete heresy to describe the post-flood God as ‘sadder but wiser’ even though this passage has a bit of that feel to it. After all, he does regret having made the human race in the first place. But maybe the key here is to see the story less as a description of God, and more of a ‘Just so’ story for the human race. Theologians calls this kind of material ‘aetiological’ which simply means a story which explains a present reality. You can easily spot them in the OT when you read the phrase ‘to this day’. Why is there a pile of stones on this particular hill? Because that’s where something or other happened, and the stones are still her today to remind us about it. It’s helpful to think of a child asking you questions.

So what does this story, and in particular these paradoxes, tell us about the world today? You might not like some of these.

Evil is real. Don’t we just know that today? Well God’s known that for a very long time, and it doesn’t take him by surprise, as it did some of the OT prophets like Habakkuk. When we say ‘I never thought people could sink that low!’ God knows only too well just how low we can sink. And of course even Noah is going to take a tumble in the next section, which sadly the lectionary spares us. In spite of the Enlightenment stuff about man (sic) coming of age and all that, we’re all basically nasty unless we try hard not to be. It doesn’t come naturally. Why is it like that? It always has been, and God ‘found that out’ shortly after the creation.

Human life is sacred. It’s very non-PC nowadays, but God gives a clear mandate for capital punishment, and there are still those who think we have ignored this at our peril, and devalued the lives of those who have been murdered. Why do we put people to death (or, in our era, why did we?)? Because human life can’t be taken away with impunity – we’re all far too valuable for that to happen.

Animals don’t have ‘rights’ as humans do. Better not say any more about this one!

Nevertheless God remains committed to us. The word ‘covenant’ in v.9 and elsewhere is misleading – it’s a promise, because, unlike a traditional covenant, nothing is required from us. It’s all grace – God freely giving us what we don’t deserve. How can he do this, in spite of the above? Because we’re worth it!

God has hung up his bow. There are many pictures from the ancient world of warlike gods with bows and arrows, smiting their human subjects. God’s bow isn’t in his hands, it’s in the sky as both a reminder of the past and a promise for the future. Never again will he destroy the earth with a flood. The story portrays the rainbow as a reminder for God, just in case he ever feels tempted, but of course it’s actually for us. Why are there those colours in the sky? Because God is good, gracious, and always wants to restore relationship and give us a second chance, if we’re willing.

We now, of course, have a new covenant through the blood of Jesus, shed on the cross. But how much of the above does that invalidate or make redundant? Discuss! What do you think?

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