Commentary on Genesis 6:16-22; 9:8-15
The new Narrative Lectionary year begins with the familiar story of Noah and the Flood.
This story may bring to mind children’s Bibles and nursery decorations. Somehow the story has gotten tamed over the years so that it seems an appropriate image for a young child’s bedroom. There are night lights, bath toys, blankets, and children’s books that depict the ark as a kind of floating zoo, with happy animals poking their heads out the windows, and a white-bearded, somewhat rotund Noah keeping a benevolent eye on it all.
The seriousness of the story, however, is apparent to those who pay attention. I once heard a pastor talk about the Flood during a children’s sermon. She called the children to the front of the sanctuary and asked them to use their imaginations in thinking about the story: “What do you see? What do you smell? What do you hear?” One youngster answered, “I hear the people in the water outside the ark screaming for help.” Needless to say, it was not the answer the pastor was seeking.
What do we do, then, with this story in which there is so much death and destruction? Some attention to the details of the Hebrew text would be helpful. As my retired colleague Terry Fretheim has pointed out, the biblical text uses the same root word (sh-kh-t) for the “corruption” that human beings bring on the earth before the Flood (Genesis 6:11-12 [3x]) and the “destruction” that the Flood itself brings (Genesis 6:13).1 In other words, the destruction of the earth is the direct result of the violence and corruption of human beings, the violence and corruption that fill the earth long before the flood waters cover it.
This use of the same word to describe both sin and the punishment for sin is not uncommon in the Hebrew Bible. Human evil (ra’ah) results in punishment (ra’ah), or better, consequences for that evil (Jeremiah 6:19; Jonah 3:10).2 If we take the Bible as a witness, not only does the punishment fit the crime, the punishment grows out of the crime. In other words, as a modern saying puts it, “We are punished not so much for our sins as by our sins.” In the Flood, human corruption leads to the corruption of the earth itself.
Fretheim also observes that the focus of the story is not on the destruction of the Flood, but on the mercy of God.3 The theological focus of the story is not on human sin but on God and God’s commitment to all living things.
First of all, though God is grieved at the sin of humanity (Genesis 6:6), God still makes provision for saving a remnant from the Flood. God harbors Noah and his family and the animals and saves them from the consuming, chaotic waters. Then, at the pivotal point of the story, God “remembers” them (Genesis 8:1). This “remembering” does not imply that God forgot the creatures on the ark, but that God is moved to act on their behalf (compare with Exodus 2:24). And in an act of new creation that mirrors the first creation, God sends a ruach, a wind, to dry up the waters and bring forth life out of death (Genesis 8:1; compare with Genesis 1:2).
Then God makes a covenant with Noah and his family, and with every living creature on earth, animals domestic and wild, cows and koala bears, jaguars and jellyfish, blue whales and bumblebees (Genesis 9:8-17).
God makes a covenant, an unequivocal promise, never to destroy the earth with a flood again. God makes this promise not because humanity has changed. Indeed, both before and after the flood, God acknowledges that “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth” (Genesis 8:21; compare with Genesis 6:5). Humanity has not changed; they will still bring corruption on the earth. The people of Israel make a golden calf and corrupt themselves (sh-kh-t) (Exodus 32:7). They turn away from God again and again to worship other gods, corrupting themselves (sh-kh-t) (Judges 2:19). Human beings are not changed by the flood, but God is changed.
God decides to commit Godself to this broken, corrupt, and sinful world. God’s mercy wins the day, and this story becomes a prime example for the exilic prophet Isaiah of God’s lovingkindness and faithfulness:
This is like the days of Noah to me: Just as I swore that the waters of Noah would never again go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you. For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the LORD, who has compassion on you (Isaiah 54:9-10).
More steadfast than the mountains and hills is God’s faithfulness and covenant love. God will be faithful, not because of anything that human beings do, but because God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6).
Make no mistake, God still takes evil seriously; but God will deal with human evil in other ways from now on: by calling Abraham and Sarah and blessing them to be a blessing (Genesis 12:1-3), by calling the Israelites to be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). God will call prophets and priests, shepherds and vine-dressers, to proclaim God’s judgment and God’s mercy, and to call a people into covenant loyalty. Over and over and over again.
Humanity has not changed in the story of the Flood, but God has changed. Humanity continues to sin and to rebel against God. Humanity continues to fill the earth with violence. God judges but God also redeems, over and over and over again.
And finally, when human sin and corruption have become so great that they threaten to overwhelm the world again, it is God himself who enters into the waters — into the waters of a woman’s womb, into the waters of the Jordan, to show once and for all that God is passionately committed to God’s creation.
This is the story of Scripture, the story on which you, dear preacher, and your congregation are embarking again at this beginning of the lectionary year. And the story of Noah is a good place to start. Even with its many pairs of animals, it is not in fact a children’s story. It is more powerful than that. It is a story about death and life. It is a story about human sin and God’s redemption. It is a story, most of all, about a God who is forevermore committed to God’s people: “For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed.”
- Fretheim has written extensively and helpfully about the Flood story. See, for instance, his article “The God of the Flood Story and Natural Disasters,” in Calvin Theological Journal 43 (2008): 21-34. I am indebted to him for much of my interpretation of the story.
- For more examples, see Fretheim, 27-31.
- Fretheim, 31-34.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of promise, you set a bow in the sky to remind us that you will never
again forsake your creation. Make us ever mindful of your promise, so that
we might honor our covenant with you. We pray these things in the name
of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Come, thou fount of every blessing ELW 807, H82 686, UMH 400, NCH 459
Creating God, your fingers trace ELW 684, H82 394, 395, NCH 462, UMH 109
Lord, dismiss us with your blessing ELW 545, H82 344,UMH 671, NCH 7
God of tempest, God of whirlwind, Carolyn Jennings