For those who want a change from the Gospel
Easter 4 – Genesis 7
In 2018 The Large Hadron Collider (or ‘Colliderscope’, as my son used to call it) had some major problems and was shut down for maintenance. On one radio programme they had an interview with one of the chief scientists, who was trying to explain what it was all about, and why he thought the machine had failed. Quite helpfully, I felt, the interviewer asked him whether, before embarking on expensive renovations, they had simply tried unplugging it from the wall and plugging it in again. We all know that can work, right? Well, the flood narrative in Genesis 6 – 9 seems to be the equivalent of God doing that with the world he had made, but which had gone sadly wrong. The problem, according to Gen 6:11-12, was about human corruption and violence, and God saw no option other than a hard reboot.
Did it happen? There is apparently some archaeological evidence for a vast flood in the ancient Middle East, and there is certainly no shortage of stories, from different cultures, of a great flood and some survivors in a boat. The most widely known is called The Epic of Gilgamesh, and it dates from around 2700 BC in Babylon, although scholars reckon that it might be a rewriting of a much earlier story. Just as this story took and used earlier traditions, so it has been suggested that the biblical story of Noah is a rewriting of the Epic, with, of course, only one God rather than a pantheon, and Noah replacing the Babylonian hero Utnapishtim. It seems as though different cultures thought and theologised differently about the same event. It is useful to compare our story with that of Utnapishtim, and so to learn what was distinctive about a Jewish retelling of the story.
In the Epic there are many gods, and they seem to be unsure about what they should do about the evil in the world. Eventually they decide on the watery reboot, but one god isn’t really happy about this decision, and so appears to Utnapishtim and tells him to make a boat in order to escape. This he does, and after not two but three birds have been released (a dove, a swallow and a raven) the boat lands and sacrifices are made to the gods. At this point we discover that in fact the gods themselves have very mixed feelings about what they have done to the human race, and not all are sure that the decision was the correct one.
So what is distinctive about the Jewish retelling of this story? First of all it comes as no surprise that there is one God and one alone. This monotheism is perhaps the central creedal statement of Judaism, expressed in the Shema: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’ It certainly makes life more decisive if you don’t have to run your decisions past a committee! YHWH is clear in his condemnation of sin and of those who unrepentantly proliferate it, just as he is clear that the righteous will be on the receiving end of his mercy.
A second indication of the mercy of God, which contrasts with the capriciousness of so many pagan deities, is that he tries the reboot knowing that it will not be successful. Indeed the first thing which happens after God makes the new covenant is that Noah goes on a bender and ends up shaming himself in front of his sons. This is hardly an auspicious start for the new humanity, but God holds to his covenant and continues to bless the human race, although once again they turn against him. I have said many times before that God’s love is never unconditional, but it is often unrequited.
The next point of interest is that God has a heart for all of his creation, not just humans. That he desired to save all the species he has made is significant, and there is much in Jewish theological thinking about the significance of the land, which can be either blessed or marred by what humans do on it. One fact that the contemporary green movements seem to have missed is that the best way to protect the planet, according to the OT, is not to sin on it. You don’t hear many people protesting about that!
But note finally that as dramatic and as ethically difficult as this story is, there are actually several times when God attempts to reboot his people. The exodus, the entry into the Promised Land and the return from exile are all portrayed as significant new starts in the relationship between God and his people, and of course the resurrection of Jesus is the one event in history which provides a new opportunity to begin again. So maybe this story is not so strange or difficult after all: maybe it prefigures the way in which God is going to show his faithfulness to his own people again and again.