Over the last several months, I have set out to inspect a number of statements about issues of gender and sexuality against Scripture in hopes of encouraging others to question the status quo that exists in American Evangelicalism. One of my greatest wishes is for people to be empowered to read Scripture both privately and corporately in a way that inspires all to imitate Christ by loving all people and joining with them in fellowship.
That is, I have strived to impress upon the reader that the purpose of reading Scripture is not to merely inform or support our own opinions or experiences. Neither is it to assist in developing a series of absolutist propositions towards a system of universal theological truth. Instead, the purpose of Scripture is to draw us into the story of God, to encounter him in his history, his intentional shared experience with humanity. As we read, the Spirit appropriates the text, inspiring and inviting us to find our place in God’s story, extending it forward into our own world by participation in Christ through his body, the Church.
As such, the point of the text is, ultimately, to encounter the human Jesus of Nazareth – the self-limiting creator of the universe (Phil 2:1-11). In doing so, we will discover who we are, created to be in his image. Thus it is worthwhile to stop seeking objective truth and begin trying to find God himself through the work of the Spirit in Scripture. It is especially worthwhile because, in my considered opinion, no person can truly encounter the radical event in history that was the life of Jesus the Christ of God without walking away a drastically different person.
One of the most challenging passages, for me, in all of Scripture is the flood narrative in Genesis 6-9. It has all the trappings of ancient religious myths (Nephilim?), all the controversy of world-wide destruction, and all the confusion of ancient theological reflection rolled into one. Unpacking all the baggage that surrounds this story would require me to unwind compositional history (a synthesis of at least two sources) and peel back all the layers of Ancient Near Eastern mythology which surround this story. It would not only prove a difficult task, for the purposes of most people it is entirely unfruitful.
Never the less, it is imperative to recognize this story defies the desire to form clear cut, propositional statements toward theological normativity. It is a nuanced, rich, and sometimes troubling text that we cannot simply ignore.
This is why I find it troubling that this story , at least in my lifelong experience of evangelicalism, has been largely relegated to the realm of children’s Sunday school lessons. Rather than plumb the depths of the text, we mostly reduce it to a cute story about fluffy animals taking a boat ride, leaving off the whole people and animals dying in droves business.
As I read the text, I find such readings both reductive and spiritually crippling. It seems to me, we too often teach our children from an early age to take anything remotely difficult in Scripture and make it as polite and pleasing as possible. Yet, we never offer them a hermeneutic that matures with age. Instead, we have created entire congregations of adults still reading Scripture with the interpretive skills of children.
This leads to adults who get caught up in trying to form propositions about God’s wrath. They are quick to point out the sins of others, insisting God’s anger burns against these people. Some even insist God’s promissory sign, the rainbow, is a sign of wrath against the gay community.
I wish to move such infanticized readings and learn to appreciate its complexity and nuance. We must allow the text, and indeed all of Scripture, to challenge us, perhaps forcing us to abandon comfortable hermeneutics and ask honest questions about how this narrative fits into God’s redemptive story. It is my hope a hand full of observations that have struck me over the years will prove insightful.
First, it will be helpful to briefly establish some contextual background. It has long been recognized that the flood story bears striking resemblance to other Ancient Near Eastern stories. Stories like Atrahasis and Gilgamesh are similar enough to suggest that Israel was not simply telling an original story. They were working within an established story, a social and ideological framework native to their environment. Thus, as a professor of mine used to say, when we read a text that functions within an established genre or thought environment, it is most important to figure out how it differs, and why those differences occur.
Looking at these differences helps us to see that Israel’s purpose was not to simply regurgitate a verbatim account of other flood stories. Instead, it was a way of analyzing their own identity. As with much of Genesis, particularly Genesis 1-11, this story is not a simple historical account. Instead, it is an analysis of Israelite identity in a world where such a thing seemed to be on the brink of annihilation.
While the stories and beliefs of Israel had been collected throughout the monarchy, it was not until after the exile that they began to be compiled, that Israel began to combine these traditions to tell their unique story. As such, they chose to use their own story as a metaphor for understanding their present predicament – the deliverance from exile, but not from foreign domination. The question, “What does it mean to be God’s chosen people?” had become increasingly hard to answer, so the writers of Scripture chose to tell Israel’s story as a way of calling its people back to God.
This framework proves helpful for understanding Genesis 6-9. For instance, a key difference between the Genesis account and ANE myths is the time frame. The dates provided within the Genesis account provide a significantly longer time frame for the flood, with Noah not seeing dry land for roughly six months. Most interesting within this time frame is the amount of time the waters fell from the sky and spouted forth from the ground – 40 days and 40 nights.
It is often noted by scholars that 40 days and 40 nights is an idiom. In Hebrew it depicts an indeterminate period of time, like when your grandma says she’ll be ready “in 5 minutes”. In both instances, what is meant is not a literal period of time, but “a long time”. This, however, does not account for the recurrence of the number 40 in Scripture and its importance to Jewish history.
For instance, both Solomon and David are said to have ruled over Israel for 40 years (2 Sam 5:4; 1 Kings 2:11, 11:42). According to Acts 7, Moses was 40 when he fled to Midian, and it was another 40 years before he encountered the burning bush – meaning Moses spent 40 years in the same wilderness he would lead Israel through. God provided Israel with 40 years of provision by giving them manna (Ex 16:35). Both times Moses received the law, he spent 40 days and 40 nights on Sinai (Ex 24, 24; Deut 9). The Israelite spies spent 40 days in Canaan and, for their fear and the disloyalty of the Israelite people,they wandered the desert for 40 years (Num 14:33-34).
The 40 years wilderness period is a recurring theme in Israelite Scripture. For the original audience, it became a symbol of God’s faithfulness, even to unfaithful people (Neh 9). It was a reminder of where Israel had been, and what God was calling them to (Ps 95).
It was in this wilderness a nation was formed (Ex 19), thus it was also a symbol of the covenant between God and Israel and the consequences of breaking it (Amos 5:25). The wilderness became a metaphor for exile (Jer 17:6), but also the place from which God’s deliverance would come, where one would come forth who would “make straight the path of the Lord” (Isa 40:3; Matt 3:3).
When we arrive in the NT, we meet Jesus who spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness being tempted by Satan. This is no mere coincidence. Jesus emerges from the wilderness in Matthew 4 and the 1st century C.E. audience realizes that he has taken up the story of Israel, that something is happening which expands on Israel’s story. This frames Jesus as the Messiah, with numerous connections to the OT through the messianic prophecies.
Thus, as I read the story of Noah it seems to me this is not a mere confusing story of universal judgment. It is a metaphor for Israel, one which points to their history and the one who fulfilled it. This story reminded the audience, even in the midst of evil, God preserves a faithful remnant. Even in the midst of seeming destruction and despair, God provides for and delivers those who remain faithful. God wants to enter into covenant with us, he will deliver his people from from certain destruction and remind them of their God given purpose, to pursue and advance his kingdom. He even gives them a physical sign of his promise by which they may know this covenant is forever.
This is made even more interesting by the language used to render God’s response to humanity’s evil, and the way in which the waters recede.
Despite the claims of many, God does not destroy the world out of anger or wrath, he does so out of despair and grief. He had charged humanity with the role of image bearer, to expand his kingdom over all creation (Gen 1:28). Yet they abandoned him and pursued evil and violence, corrupting the earth and destroying creation (Gen 6:5-12). God called, from among the corrupted creation, a single man and his family to begin again.
This becomes a theme throughout the OT. While we often think of the wrath of God being connected only with his anger, quite often his wrath is associated with grief over the actions of his creation. God is depicted as grieved over Israel and the demise of those who defy him. We are told repeatedly that God takes no pleasure in wrath, that punishment is the result of sin, but his desire is redemption (Ez 18, 33-34; cf. 2 Pet 3).
This theme also carries into the NT. Jesus weeps over Jerusalem in Luke 19:41-44. He is moved with compassion for the sufferings of others (Matt 9, Mark 1:40-45), and even forgives his tormentors and betrayers on the cross (Luke 23:34). If in Jesus the Father is fully revealed (John 14:1-14), then we see that forgiveness and reconciliation, the call of all to seek him and repent, is at the heart of God’s character.
What, then, must we make of universal destruction, of creation reduced watery chaos (cf.Gen 1:1-2). It strikes me that God has not simply destroyed, he has erased his work (save those in the ark) and started afresh. He has wiped out that which abused and corrupted his creation and began the work of New Creation. When the waters cease in Genesis 8, we are reminded that God has remembered Noah – the faithful one. He sends a wind to blow across the face of the earth and push the waters back to their limits (cf Gen 1:6-13).
This wind is no ordinary wind, however. In Genesis 1:2 we hear of the “Spirit of God” moving over the face of the watery earth. Often overlooked is that the word rendered Spirit is actually the Hebrew word for wind. This is the “wind” which pushes back the waters of the flood, and the same wind which parted the Red Sea. If one reads the Song of Moses in Exodus 15, they will also notice striking linguistic parallels between the birth of Israel, delivered from Pharoah’s army and called to Sinai to meet their God, and the creation account from watery chaos. Again, it becomes clear, the Spirit of God (the very breath of God) guides and provides for his faithful people. Noah was not forgotten, but was ushered into a New Creation brought forth by God’s Spirit as a reward for his faithfulness.
In this New Creation, Noah was called not to a life of complacency or solitude,but to pursue God’s kingdom upon the earth (9:7), a reiteration of the commission of humanity in Genesis 1. God made a covenant with him and promised to pursue humanity, not destroy it.
This does not erase the difficulty, for a modern reader, of how to deal with the seemingly wanton destruction God doles out in this passage. But it does give us a way of processing these difficulties. Just as Israel was confronted with stories of a flood, an event which was cataclysmic enough that the whole world seemed to unravel, they were confronted with the new crisis of identity after the destruction of their society. They had to seek meaning and identity in a God they had betrayed, who had exiled them. The temple had been destroyed and a rebuilding effort had met fierce opposition from their enemies. For many, though they had returned to Israel, the constant conflict and invasions from their enemies caused them to question if God was still on their side (cf. Dan 9).
Rather than abandon God, Israel embraced their history. Rather than focus on a calamity, they sought to understand how the God of their ancestors was faithful even when one’s very context had been unmade. They refused to assume God had abandoned them, and instead explored how his history was their history, using their past to retell his story in a way that brought hope for their present by clinging to his promises for the future.
Like Israel, we can see God’s promise in this story. We can see how the crucifixion of Christ was, for his followers, and event much like the destruction of Jerusalem. Everything they had come to believe had been destroyed, yet it was made new in the Resurrection. He remained faithful to his promise and, through the provision of the Spirit, called his disciples to advance the kingdom of God in the world.
As part of the modern audience, I am reminded we must be aware of the chaos in our world and seek God. We must recognize that for refugees from Syria, the persecuted in Iraq, and people suffering the horrors of war and genocide in Africa their societies have been unmade. For the depressed, homeless, sex slaves, trafficked workers, and victims of physical and sexual abuse the world can seem to be collapsing around us. For so many in our world, it seems like God has only wrath to give them.
Yet, as we see this world that is broken and lost, we must refuse to assume God’s wrath. Instead, we must seek the heart of Christ, his desire to call all will come to him and give them rest. We must seek to embody his grace, humility, and love as we recognize that God calls his people to pursue his kingdom – pursue the justice and grace of Christ in the lives of others. We have been called to participate in God’s continuing story, to become communities which embody the faithfulness of God for others, and to take upon ourselves the death of Christ that others might live (4:10-12).
It is time – to paraphrase Paul- for us to put away childish interpretation – to put down our pictures of smiling animals on a houseboat, pick up our cross and follow Christ (Matt 16:24).
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