Third Sunday after Pentecost

Like the charming tales in Kipling’s Jungle Book, the stories in Genesis 3-11 originally tried to answer age-old questions such as: Why is childbirth painful?

June 1, 2008

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Genesis 6:9-22; 7:24; 8:14-19

Like the charming tales in Kipling’s Jungle Book, the stories in Genesis 3-11 originally tried to answer age-old questions such as: Why is childbirth painful?

Or why do people speak different languages? In Genesis, however, these stories have been refashioned to present us with a picture of humanity repeatedly shattering the relationship with God established in creation; as such they depict the spread of sin. All five stories share a pattern in which a sinful act (A) prompts a speech from God (B), curse (C), and a merciful act (D).

For example, in the story of Adam and Eve, eating the fruit is the sinful act (A, v. 6) that prompts God’s reprimand (B, vv. 14-19) and banishment of the human couple from the garden (C, vv. 22-24). Since Adam and Eve worried about their nakedness, God made skins for them to wear (v. 21). This last step is important for the relationship. When young children are punished it is important for parents to reassure them that “Mommy still loves you!”

STORYAdam & Eve 3:1-24Cain & Abel (4:1-16)The Flood (6:1-8:22)Canaan Cursed (9:20-27)Tower of Babel (11:1-9)
A SIN3:64:8b6:5-69:2211:4
B SPEECH3:14-194:11-126:79:25; 26c; 27c11:6-7
C CURSE3:22-244:14, 167:6-249:26b; 27b11:8-9
D MERCY3:214:158:1a; 21-229:26a; 27a?

The repetition of this pattern in the following stories ties them together and suggests that they be read together. When we do, we notice that the pattern breaks at the very end (D in the Tower of Babel); there is no concluding merciful act. We also see that the Flood narrative dominates the center. It has its own distinctive structure:

A God resolves to destroy (6:11-13)
     B  Noah builds ark (6:14-22)    
            C  God orders Noah, “Enter the ark!” (7:1-9)
                  D  Flood begins (7:10-16)
                        E  Flood prevails 150 days covering the mountains                               (7:17-24)
                             X   God remembers Noah (8:1a)                       
                        E’ Flood recedes 150 days revealing the mountains                               (8:1b-5)
                  D’ Flood ends (8:6-14)
            C’ God orders Noah, “Leave the ark!” (8:15-19)
     B’ Noah builds altar (8:20)
A’ God resolves not to destroy (8:21-22)

In this arrangement, the end (A’) echoes the beginning (A), the next to last element (B’) echoes the second element (B) and so on. When we compare the matching elements three points emerge:

1. The progression in the top half of the structure, from God’s decision to destroy all flesh to their destruction in the flood (A to E), reverses the process of creation in Genesis 1. There, creation was portrayed as a process of separation and distinction; here, God removes those separations and distinctions. For example, in the creation story God placed a dome in the sky to separate the waters above from the waters below (1:6-8); now God opens the windows of the heavens, thus removing that distinction (7:11). The previous distinction between the water and the dry land (1:9) was removed when the “fountains of the great deep burst forth” (7:11). Finally, the sequence of destruction mirrors that of creation: first the earth was destroyed, then birds, domestic animals, wild animals, swarming creatures, and people (7:21). When we arrive at 7:24 we recognize the watery chaos with which God began in Genesis 1. If Genesis 1 depicts God’s grace in “The Creation,” Genesis 6 and 7 depict God’s judgment in “The Un-creation!”

2. But if the progression in the top half of the structure, from A to E, depicts God’s Un-Creation, the parallel movement from E’ to A’ depicts God’s “Re-Creation.” From the receding of the water (E’) to the end of the flood (D’) to the command to leave the Ark (C’) to the building of the altar (B’) to God’s decision never again to destroy (A’), every element of the first half of the flood story is reversed in this second half. This suggests that God’s judgment is matched by God’s mercy. A second indication that this is a re-creation story in which God undoes creation in order to start again is found in the command to Noah: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (9:1), which is the same as that given to Adam and Eve (1:28).

3. Finally, in the center of the narrative we read that “God remembered Noah” (X, 8:1a).

These last points suggest why the flood narrative appears in the middle of Gen 3-11. Following God’s initial blessing to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth (Gen 1:28), the progression of sin begins with the parental sin of Adam and Eve (Gen 3) and proceeds through the brothers Cain and Abel (Gen 4) to the whole world (Gen 6). After God’s “un-creation” and subsequent “re-creation” of the world, indicating God’s intention to give humanity a second chance, initiated with the same blessing to be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth (Gen 9:1), the world reverts to the same sinful progression of parental sin (Noah’s drunkenness, 9:21), followed by sin involving the brothers Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Gen 9:23-27), and culminating in the world-wide sin of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11). Since this old pattern of sin reasserted itself immediately after God’s merciful re-creation, it seems that neither God’s judgment (A–E) nor God’s mercy (E’–A’) are able to stop the spread of sin!

Do you remember the first pattern we looked at? In the last story in the series, the Tower of Babel, (Gen 11), the pattern was incomplete. But patterns are established to draw our attention to the point at which they break down. By omitting God’s merciful act in Genesis 11, the author presents a stunningly different divine plan for restoring relationship with humanity. Instead of working with the whole human race in acts of judgment or mercy, God decides to choose one human representative and bless him into relationship that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). That chosen one is Abraham, to whom we will turn next week.