Commentary on Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13
The ancient story of Noah recounts a devastating flood — a flood that begins with problems very much like those in our world.
It begins when God sees that violence has been spreading among humans, and tries to figure out what to do. It’s a story about God’s desire for a better world than humans were creating. A story about change. First God’s change, and then, over the centuries, a hope for human change.
The story begins with God seeing “that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). And God, grieved to the heart, regrets having made humans, and decides to get rid of them. So to start over, God warns Noah to build an ark to preserve his family and a few of every animal species. And it rains.
Midway through the narrative, God remembers Noah and all the animals, and the waters recede. Noah opens the window and sends out a raven, and then a dove, to see if they can find land. And when all finally step out of the ark, Noah sets the animals free, and worships. And God speaks again, recognizing that humans will still do evil, yet pledging never again to flood the earth. The people who emerge from the ark aren’t changed. Instead, it’s God who decides to do something different.
The story features some interesting problems with divine decision-making. One ethical problem is that God’s plan for doing away with the guilty destroys the innocent as well — infants too young to have done anything but cry, and animals who are accused of no wrongdoing. One strategic problem is that God decides to keep a sample so that no species goes extinct, including a sample of the humans who caused the trouble. So the flood didn’t solve the problem of evil.
To understand the ethical problem in its context, it helps to examine the story’s origin in history, in the literature of the surrounding world. Archaeologists have discovered and translated other flood stories, ancient stories from Sumeria and Mesopotamia, centuries older than the Genesis account. The best preserved version is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which features someone named Utnapishtim.
When the gods (plural) decide to destroy the land with a flood, a god who objects to this decision warns Utnapishtim to build a ship to preserve his family and some animals and grains. The flood lasts twelve days. As the waters recede, Utnapishtim sends out a dove, then a swallow, and finally a raven. When he at last leaves the boat, he sets the animals free, and makes an offering to the gods who, it turns out, have differing opinions about the ethics of what just happened.
Scholars see the Genesis writers as having adopted and adapted this story, which was widely known at the time. As with all adaptations, the biblical writers introduce some changes in the plot. Genesis doesn’t presume a pantheon of gods, of course, but one God. So instead of an ethical dispute among the gods about divine actions, the story becomes a tale about what God does, and regrets doing, and ought to do, about human violence.
I read the flood narrative as being, at least for us, a “what if” tale, a thought experiment: What if God saw the mess humans made and decided to stop forgiving? What if God, grieved at human violence, tried one solution that turned out not to work either ethically or practically, and then tried something else, deciding never again to give up on humans, but instead to take a long, patient, forbearing path with us?
As a result of this choice, the story implies, divine grace surrounds us. It’s the air we breathe. We have never known a moment in which God did not forgive evil, sustaining us on pure grace; no moment when we weren’t, on some level, getting much better than we deserve. And we can’t take that for granted.
In the end God promises, twice, never again to destroy the earth with a flood. Some have suggested this means that God won’t let us destroy the world, by flood or fire or nuclear war or climate change or any other means. But it doesn’t say God will keep us from destroying. In fact, it tries to account for the fact that we can destroy one another and creation, and that even a grieving God doesn’t intervene to stop our madness. Individually and collectively, we — and nature, and future generations — do suffer the consequences of human actions.
But there is another lesson in God’s post-flood promises that is usually overlooked. Reading God’s words in chapter nine in full, down to verse 17, we see that the passage says six times that God’s promise of grace is not just for humans, but for everything living on earth.
First God specifies that the covenant is with “you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark” (Genesis 9:9-10). Then God repeats five more times that the covenant is with every living creature, repeating “the earth” four times, “all creatures” four times, and “all flesh” five times. Not once is the covenant with humans only. God’s covenant is with all. It’s as wide as the earth and as deep as all time.
When ancient scriptures were hand-lettered on parchment and hand copied from one scroll to the next, repeating something six times was very expensive, so when it happens, it must be important. This loving bond between God and humans, this gracious covenant of unmerited grace, is not just between humans and God. We are bound up in covenant with the whole living world. And if we are bound up in such a covenant, we are obliged to preserve all life as thoughtfully as God has preserved ours.
Scripture’s writers draw attention repeatedly to the natural world. They imagine human civilization not as separate from but living inside of nature. Psalm 147 intertwines the two, saying: “God heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. God determines the number of the stars; and gives them their names.”
The sad, the sick and the stars are all God’s realm of concern. “God covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills. God gives to the animals their food, and to the young ravens when they cry.” God hears human cries, God also hears the ravens’ cries. If we are bound in covenant with all that live on earth, we too are obliged to hear the ravens cry, just as the psalmist says God does.
The violence humans do to one another and the violence we do to the natural world come from the same place in the human heart. Scripture says that a good and wise God created us good. We’re capable of great evil, as the flood story says and as we know every day. But God means for us to be transformed, just as the flood transformed God’s intentions.
The story tells of a transformative decision long ago that bound us up in promise with all creation. If, as the psalm says, God hears the young ravens when they cry, if God can be imagined hearing that raven as it flew to and fro searching for land, we humans cannot do any less than listen too. God promised not to destroy the world. Now it’s our turn to promise the same.