14 January 2021

Collateral damage, part two: Noah and the flood

Edward Hicks, Noah's Ark (1846), source.

Part one, part threepart four.

Some at the window, some at the door,
Some cried, "Brother Noah, can't you take on more?
But Noah cried out, "Uh uh, my friends.
The angel's got the key and you can't get in."

("Didn't It Rain," as performed by Sister Rosetta Tharpe -- see end of post.)

With the New Year, my Bible reading cycle starts all over again. Back to Genesis, where God creates us and everything else, and says, "It's all good."

Of course, before long the Serpent tricked us into craving control (that's my non-inerrant interpretation of the forbidden tree episode). We found ourselves excluded from the Garden of Eden.

Cain and Abel were brothers but their relationship came to a tragic end. Cain took offense at God's apparent favoritism toward Abel. God gave Cain a very interesting warning: "Why this tantrum? Why the sulking? If you do well, won’t you be accepted? And if you don’t do well, sin is lying in wait for you, ready to pounce; it’s out to get you, you’ve got to master it."

Cain doesn't master it at all; he kills Abel, and things go downhill from there. By the time Noah comes around, God has had it up to here with us humans and our violent ways. Having decided on a reboot of the entire landside animal kingdom, including us, God makes an exception for Noah and his family, because Noah seems exceptionally righteous. God shares the divine plan with Noah -- "It’s all over. It’s the end of the human race. The violence is everywhere; I’m making a clean sweep." And God commands Noah to build a huge teakwood ark to preserve a set of humans and animals (both clean and unclean) with which to restock the earth after God uses a flood to wipe out anything that can't survive submerged.

I've read this story annually for decades without thinking much about it. This year, for some reason, it hooked me. It's not the logistical problems that gave me pause -- for example, how the animals and birds were persuaded to board, how they were provisioned for a year, how heaven and earth supplied sufficient water to inundate the planet to a depth of 20 feet above the highest mountain, and so on. Nor was I troubled by similarities with two or three other worldwide floods in literary sources even older than Genesis.

However, there is one aspect I found it impossible to reconcile with my belief in divine mercy: Isn't this flood the ultimate example of collateral damage? Are Noah and his family literally the only innocent creatures (human or animal!) on the face of the earth? Did God have no other option than to cause everyone else to suffer the fate of Pharaoh's horses and riders, thrown into the sea?

Honestly, when I encountered this story this year, I was actually hooked by something I was feeling that day: a sensation of being flooded in our own time by the sheer deluge of challenges hitting us. We have a global public health emergency; the resulting massive economic dislocations; the widening gulfs between idealists and cynics, between wealthy and poor, between populist cults and their angry critics; and, not least, everything that conspires to draw our attention away from the environmental crises that promise actual floods. In the light of all these challenges, it seems reasonable to take another look at Noah and the flood. Here's what struck me:

God's plaintive voice. I think I got this insight from Walter Brueggemann. God warns the disobedient Adam, Eve, and Cain, that because of their rebellions, things are going to be tough from then on. They'll suffer physical privations and social oppression. It would be hard to blame them for feeling discouraged. "My punishment is too much," says Cain. But it isn't long before God also feels regret. In The Message's retelling, "God saw that human evil was out of control. People thought evil, imagined evil—evil, evil, evil from morning to night. God was sorry that [God] had made the human race in the first place; it broke [God's] heart."

How did God evaluate the results of the flood solution? Upon disembarking from the ark, Noah takes some of the limited stock of animals and sacrifices them, resulting in a sweet aroma that seems to please God, who responds: "I’ll never again curse the ground because of people. I know they have this bent toward evil from an early age, but I’ll never again kill off everything living as I’ve just done." It's a powerful paradox: the sovereign God, powerful enough to kill off everything, seems to rethink God's own response to human evil, already acknowledging ("I know they have this bent...") that evil will persist.

Noah's limited righteousness. The pre-flood Noah pleased God, but commentators have pointed out a stark contrast with his descendant Abraham. The latter protested God's plans to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah: "I can’t believe you’d do that, kill off the good and the bad alike as if there were no difference between them. Doesn’t the Judge of all the Earth judge with justice?" Maybe I shouldn't argue from silence, but Genesis records no such protest from Noah. Of course it may be God's promise not to repeat this extinction event that provokes Abraham's protest six generations later.

Noah's behavior after disembarking from the ark is also a bit dubious. One of his first priorities, it seems, is to plant a vineyard. He then gets so drunk on his product that he passes out naked. In his hangover, instead of apologizing for his indiscretion, he blames his son Ham for having seen him naked -- and goes on to curse Ham to eternal servitude to Ham's brothers! In one of history's all-time grossest abuses of the Bible, defenders of chattel slavery somehow justify their race-based institution on this curse. As God seems to have anticipated ("I know they have this bent..."), evil and violence roll on.

God's direct instructions to Noah and his family. Despite God's misgivings about human weakness, God promises never to perform another lethal reboot. Crucially, God does not require the flood's survivors to wallow in shame. Not at all! It's God's explicit instructions that I want to carry with me into this new year: Reproduce! Flourish! Bear fruit! Live bountifully! (Drawing from Genesis 8:15-9:17....) God seals this command and commitment with the rainbow sign -- visible to God and to us. I'm led to believe that God intends these instructions to humanity as a whole, not just a lucky few.

If we let our primordial inclination toward evil to win out, this is how we will know: we will use violence to make sure our own flourishing is at someone else's expense. When we binge, we'll find someone else to blame. Instead, let the rainbow remind us to learn how to flourish together, so our planetary ark will have enough provisions for all. Maybe then we'll have the best reboot of all: as George Fox envisioned, we would find ourselves back in the Garden of Eden, once again equal and once again unashamed.

The Noah story from beginning to end. I originally wrote parts of this meditation as a sermon for Spokane Friends Meeting, and I wanted a conversational tone, so I chose Eugene Peterson's paraphrase, but the online text can be switched to another translation if you prefer. 

Walter Brueggemann on Noah.

Alexei Navalny's upcoming return to Russia on Pobeda (Victory) Airlines lights up the Russian Internet. (And RFERL's analysis.)

Speaking of RFERL, the turmoil at its parent agency continues.

William de Arteaga on false prophecies concerning Donald Trump's second term. De Arteaga is the author of Agnes Sanford and Her Companions.

David French on church and insurrection.

Jay Marshall on centrifuges, the Ungame, and the concept of enough.

Quardricos Driskell looks at the attacks on Raphael Warnock's faith.

Nancy Thomas on the best books she read in 2020.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe, "Didn't It Rain" and "Trouble in Mind" (from Granada TV's "Blues and Gospel Train," 1964.)

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