THAT SHIP HAS SAILED
11Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. 13And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. 14Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch….17For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. 18But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. 19And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. 20Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. 21Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.” 22Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.
(Genesis 6:11-14, 17-22, NRSV)
There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that Noah loaded two dogs, two cats, and two hamsters on the ark. The bad news is that for some reason Noah also loaded two mosquitoes, two rattlesnakes, and two brown recluse spiders. What was he thinking? Truth be told, he was just following orders, God’s orders.
It’s a warm cuddly story isn’t it—Noah with his long white beard sawing and hammering wood for his boat, Noah and his wife (Joan of Arc…?) leading the procession of animals two by two onto the boat, the dove returning to Noah with an olive branch in its mouth, and the stunning rainbow the perfect Hollywood ending to this favorite biblical bedtime story.
It’s a heartwarming tale as long as we leave out the part about God’s decision to wipe out the entire human race. This is no sweet bedtime story. No, this tale is as horrific and horrifying as any story in all of scripture. What kind of dark and sinister God would do such a thing? What kind of God would find it easier to wipe out humanity than to struggle long and hard to save it, or at least help humanity save itself? The story may be in the Bible, but I do not and cannot believe in a God who acts with such cruelty. As I see it, this is not the God of Jesus.
So how did humanity send God into such a temper tantrum in the first place? As the story goes (read Genesis 6:5-9:17 for the whole narrative), God looks down on the tenth generation since Adam and Eve and regrets having started this whole creation business in the first place. The land is rife with violence and evil, corruption and injustice, selfishness and decadence. So God decides to do something about it. Cue Bob Dylan who sings, “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall.” The result—an epic flood.
Why the flood? Some scholars suggest, “God intended to purge the world of its corruption” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. I, p. 394). Another perspective explains, “God wanted to undo creation…and to begin again” (Ibid.). Many scholars emphasize the point that in choosing to preserve Noah and his family that the emphasis should be on God’s saving grace and willingness to continue working with humanity. While there is certainly a good sermon there somewhere, I cannot get beyond the notion that God decides to wipe out everyone, except one family. What of all the innocent children, the little babies? Couldn’t a fleet of arks have been built for them? Why could only one family win the ark lotto?
As far as I’m concerned, we get a warped view of God if we take the stories in Genesis literally. How could we worship a God who one day decided to kill everybody except one family? So I wonder, who conceived this story and under what conditions? What influenced ancient Israel to record the flood story in the first place?
Scholars report the existence of “approximately 25 flood stories from cultures around the ancient world” (http://oldtestamentlectionary.unitingchurch.org.au/2005/may/Pent2Gen6_05.htm). The best known can be found in the Gilgamesh Epic. An older Babylonian story dates back to the 3rd century BC (New Interpreters, p. 388). Similarities between this ancient account and the biblical story are striking: “creation, early proliferation and disruption of humankind…the gods sending a flood to stop human disruption; [and] the saving of a hero” (Ibid.). While no evidence of a worldwide flood exists, evidence does exist for a severe flood around 3,000 BC in the Mesopotamian valley. This flood covered the then known world and seems to be the root of the Genesis account (Ibid.).
Perhaps the Mesopotamian flood story passed by oral tradition from one generation to the next. Eventually someone asked, “Why would God make the world and then destroy it with a flood?” As often happens in certain religious circles, the people blamed themselves and assumed it was humanity’s fault. Maybe someone else asked, “If the whole world was destroyed by a flood, how is it that people and animals are here today?” And the story of a boat big enough for two of every animal and a righteous family sprang to life.
Which brings us back to the biblical story. While I cannot fathom believing in a God who destroys with a catastrophic flood or any other natural disaster, I can affirm a God who set the rainbow in the sky as a sign of hope, hope for a new tomorrow. As the story goes God makes a covenant with Noah, promising never again to destroy the world with a flood. Then God puts a rainbow in the sky as a sign of this covenant. God says, “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between [me] and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth” (Genesis 9:16).
The counterfeit god who destroyed becomes our loving God who helps rebuild. The counterfeit god who inflicted suffering becomes our merciful God who encourages hope. The counterfeit god who abandoned humanity becomes our steadfast God who promises to never give up again. The God of the rainbow—this is the God I believe in. The God of the rainbow never forsakes any of us including the people facing wildfires in California or the people facing violence in Syria. And God has not forsaken the children separated from their parents at the border, and neither should we, not until every parent and child have been reunited.
Together let us work and pray every day that the suffering might find comfort in the God of the rainbow, the God who promises to preserve, not destroy, the God who promises to be with us always, the God who promises to help us begin again after the storm subsides. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
August 12, 2018
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Indwelling God, infused throughout all existence, we honor you with many names. Your realm is within the human heart. We accept life for all that it can be, on earth as throughout all creation. May we continue to draw sustenance from this earth, and may we receive forgiveness equal to our own. May we ever move from separation toward union, to live in grace, with love in our hearts. We are grateful, O God, for the companionship of hearts and minds gathered in this good place. We are grateful for the gift of life itself, mindful that to respect life means both to celebrate what life is and to insist on what it can become.
Through the power of the Spirit we pray. AMEN.
Adapted from: http://www.rexaehuntprogressive.com/liturgy_collection/year_a_liturgy_collection/year_a_pentecostafter/pentecost3a162008.html