Old Testament Lectionary Feb 22nd Lent 1 Gen 9:8-17

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.

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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?

OT Lectionary May 18th Easter 5 Genesis 8:1-19

Part 2 of the Noah cycle sees the ark and its cargo coming in safely to land as the water recedes and dry land is once more revealed. This part of the tale again contains some important theological themes, a historical question, and even a bit of irony.

 

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The word ‘remembered’ in 8:1 translates an important Hebrew word zacar. It is used several times in the OT, most notably in Ex 2:24 where God sees the suffering of the enslaved Israelites and ‘remembers’ his covenant with Abraham. On a first reading it looks there, as here, that God ‘remembers’ because he has ‘forgotten’ – ‘Oh my goodness – those poor Israelites! I was meant to do something about them but I’ve just been so busy lately …’ In fact the word has a different meaning: it means something like to recall to the front of one’s mind because action is required now. This is very different from having passed out of God’s sphere of consciousness: it means that their concerns are next on his agenda. It’s easy to feel when we’re already feeling down and abandoned that even God has given up on us. This story reminds us that nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just that he doesn’t always work to our timetables or schedules. But then we already knew that, didn’t we? And salvation, when it does come, often comes gradually. It was one thing to have landed safely, but to stay locked in the ark until the waters have receded enough for them to return to normality must have been an agonisingly slow and frustrating process. God has ‘remembered’ our need of salvation; Jesus died on the cross to win it, but we are still locked into a life where we’re not yet truly free. Sometimes that feels incredibly frustrating.

Talking of timing, I note with interest the sheer number of time references in this passage, which raise the question of its historicity or otherwise. Liberal theology would write this story off as a primaeval myth, and people might well point to The Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells a similar story from the background of a different religion and culture, and with its hero much less pronouncably called ‘Utnapishtim’. Others would suggest that there was indeed a significant flood in the Middle East at that period of history, as archaeological evidence confirms, but that different cultures told its story in different ways. And all would agree that the real point of this story is to highlight human depravity and God’s righteousness and saving mercy. So why are there so many chronological references? Most fairy stories are set simply ‘Once upon a time …’ with a notably vague setting in history. But here we have a series of timescales between the events of the story which make it feel almost historical. I’ll leave you to decide that one.

Finally, as one who is not known for being an animal-lover, I like the irony in v20 (strictly speaking in next week’s instalment) of the poor creatures who, just as they were breathing a huge sigh of relief at having survived a watery death, find themselves burning to death on an altar. Sometimes life just sucks.

OT Lectionary 11th May Easter 4 Genesis 7

The Noah’s Ark cycle, beloved of Sunday School children and Hollywood alike, faces us with some profound theological dilemmas. The story actually begins in chapter 6, where God looks at the state of the world he made, and is so deeply disturbed by what he sees that he regrets having made it in the first place. There’s your first dilemma – how can the all-knowing God regret anything? Has it all taken him by surprise? Then comes his decision to act on his dismay by destroying everything he has made. Does it mean that God has lost control of his creation, and that the only way to stop the spiralling evil is total annihilation? Clearly not: there are two things here which can help us make sense of the story. First of all is God’s deep grief. In Gen 6:6 we’re told that God is deeply troubled, not that he was livid with anger. His actions may seem those of someone who is fuming at the injustice of it all, but the text paints a different picture. This is more about salvation than judgement. You get the same thing a few verses earlier in 6:3: God’s limiting of the stretch of human life is an act of mercy, otherwise we’d all be caught in an eternity of evil and strife, which is very different from the eternity of peace and harmony which was his intention for the human race. So here, God’s destruction of evil has behind it the intention of saving the human race from sin. The only problem is that sin doesn’t exist in a vacuum: it requires sinners. You can’t stop sin without stopping people doing it.

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But then there is the motif of mercy. This is not an angry act of vengeance by a peeved despot. God looks around, and he spots Noah. He is different. He really is trying to live in righteous and godly ways. There is someone undeserving of punishment, someone who can provide a new start for the human race. So Noah is called to be the captain of the boat which will sail into the new world, and through whom humans can be saved.

One of the reasons, I believe, that this story is so difficult for us once you get beyond the Sunday School models of little animals, is that in so many ways it subverts our culture’s understanding of God, life, the universe and everything. We don’t like a God who destroys stuff, even if it isn’t in anger (which frankly isn’t that convincing – it looks like anger to us!) We don’t think that Noah could really be that much better than anyone else, and we don’t hold with his family being lumped together with him: surely it’s about our individual response to God? In so many ways this story is counter cultural, but if we can get beyond our outrage it can nevertheless speak to us.

It speaks about the seriousness of sin and evil to a tolerant age. It speaks about a compassionate God in an age where we don’t like him doing anything nasty. It tells us that God thinks ‘corporate’ when we instinctively think ‘individual’. It teaches us that while God may not be big on ‘animal rights’ (I’m not convinced that animals have any rights, lacking as they do any responsibility), he still cares enough about his creation to save those which have no use as food. And it speaks of a God who desires not the death of a sinner, and will look around for those who are righteous, but will not shrink from destroying those who seem bent on destroying others and themselves. All this is deeply unpopular to our way of thinking, but I believe it is what the text says. And next week, of course, we’ll get the happy ending.