First Sunday in Lent (Year B)

The story of Noah and the flood is one of those biblical narratives that we are so familiar with we think we know the whole story.

February 26, 2012

First Reading
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Commentary on Genesis 9:8-17

The story of Noah and the flood is one of those biblical narratives that we are so familiar with we think we know the whole story.

In fact, what we tend to think of as the story is one of two interpretations that are common in our culture. The most common interpretation is very much a children’s story of animals and rainbows. This is a story about God’s love for animals, about remembering God’s love each time we see a rainbow, even about the bright side of every storm. 

The second common interpretation is a story that is most definitely not for children. In this interpretation, God is so angered by human rebellion that God floods the whole earth, wiping out nearly everything in a fit of divine rage. This is a story about a God whom you’d be crazy to want to have anything to do with, a God of wrath who is ready and willing to strike down sinners.

Neither of these stories is the whole story, of course, and neither contains much truth. A truer story is that God has a myriad of ways of calling us back to the harmony that God intended for us. Our text for today, in which God establishes a covenant with Noah and his descendants, tells us that God is hanging up the bow, putting aside forever the option of destruction and seeking us as God’s own.

The entire flood narrative (Genesis 6:5-9:17) is the culmination of a story of increasing human sinfulness that begins in Genesis 3. There we first see that sin results in disharmony — between humans and other creatures (3:15), between male and female (3:16), and between humans and their earthly labors (3:17-18). Disharmony intensifies in chapter four, in which the first murder, that of a brother no less, occurs. The genealogy of chapter five draws the link from Adam’s generation to Noah’s in order to highlight the downward spiral of humanity. Finally, 6:1-8 narrates the breaking of God’s harmonious world. In the coupling of heavenly and earthly beings, the boundary between the two realms is shattered. The entire cosmos is thus thrown into disorder, and humanity is so broken that God regrets having created it in the first place.

The language of this divine regret in 6:5-6 is breathtaking. In verse five, God saw that “every inclination of the thoughts of [human] hearts was only evil continually.” Yet God’s response to this realization is not one of anger or revenge. Rather, God was “sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (verse 6). God sorrows over the corruption of the beings that God made with such care and love, and God’s heart, in striking contrast to the evil inclination of the human heart, is grieved by their betrayal. God is pained by the brokenness of creation. God sends the flood, then, not as an act of revenge, but out of grief over the rending of right human relationship with God. Note that human betrayal of God’s intention has effects beyond human beings; human sin has issued in the corruption of all the earth (6:11), and therefore in its destruction.

That destruction, of course, is not total. God doesn’t wipe away the creation entirely and then walk away. The flood is in fact the means of re-creation. God washes the earth clean and both God and the earth begin again. The re-creative nature of the flood is underscored by parallels between this narrative and the creation narrative of Genesis 1:

  • That which God had repeatedly pronounced good in chapter one, God now names as evil (6:5 and 6:12).
  • The separation and gathering of the waters (1:6-11) is first undone (6:11) and then redone (8:3-14).
  • God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” (1:28) is repeated three times (8:17, 9:1, and 9:7) after the flood.
  • That humans are created in the image of God is repeated (9:6b).

Thus all of creation is given a new beginning, a new opportunity to live in the harmony that God intended. Note, however, that this new beginning is also a continuation; God does not create new beings, but begins anew with a remnant of the beings created at the beginning.

Which brings us to the covenant, the sealing of the newly-restored relationship between God and God’s creatures. Note that this is entirely God’s doing. God enters into an eternal covenant with all creation without requiring anything in return. God does so fully aware that “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth,” (8:21) still. The flood has not cleansed the human heart of sin, which we see in the latter portion of chapter nine. But God knows this, and God enters into covenant with us anyway. Perhaps the divine heart that was so aggrieved by human wickedness that God sent a flood is now moved by that same grief to seek another way to get through to us. So God promises to Noah and to his descendants, and to every creature on the earth, never again to destroy all creation with a flood.

The sign of this covenant, God’s bow in the clouds, is precisely the bow of battle. Ancient depictions of a deity armed with bow and arrow are not unusual. To hang up one’s bow is to retire from battle. That bow in the clouds is the sign of God’s promise that whatever else God does to seek our restoration, destruction is off the table.

An implication of this promise is that God will try everything else. God will seek us and seek us, despite or perhaps because of God’s knowledge of every sin, every grief, and every shame that veils our vision of God’s reality and of our own as God’s creatures. Whatever dwells in our hearts that keeps us from hearing the harmony of all life in God’s care, God will not give up on loving us into restoration.