Wednesday, June 28, 2006

God Gives Up On Us . . . Almost (Genesis 5-10)


Noah’s Ark is one of the first Bible stories we learn as children – probably because it involves so many animals. Isn’t it interesting how much children love animals? There’s something very primal, very deep there, though it is often quickly socialized out by modern society. I can’t help but think of how Genesis puts our relationship with the animals at the very center of our vocation as humans. Anyway, the ark is a theme for murals in nurseries, for storybooks, and my son even has a plastic Noah’s Ark playset among his toys.

Don’t be fooled: Noah’s Ark is one of the darkest and most heart-wrenching stories in the Bible.

It opens promisingly enough. After Noah’s birth, Lamech prophesies that “out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.” Man has been aching under his curse, and Noah will be a savior that helps turn things around.

Meanwhile, God is not pleased with his creation. He’s an artist who had high hopes for a painting, but after struggling with it for far too long finally decides to trash the thing. With a look of disgust, he growls,
I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.
All the beauty of creation, all the wonder of Genesis 1, all the creative energy – all for nothing. He has given up on us; the artist grips the canvas to tear it to shreds.

And then he sees one tiny corner of the painting that really did embody the vision he had when he started the project. Everything else is a mess, every other bit is absolute garbage, but “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” The artist takes a deep breath, and resolves to give the painting another try.

However, this involves painting over everything else but the little corner and starting almost from scratch.

I’m continually struck by how the fate of creation is bound up with the fate of humanity. God says, “cursed is the earth because of you,” over and over again. First it was thorns and thistles, then utter fruitlessness, and now the earth is engulfed by the crushing chaos of the sea. Back to day one. The only memory of all the previous work drifts precariously atop the waves: a lone ship in an eternal ocean.

On the seventh month the ark rests on the tops of the mountains, and on the third month after that earth is again seen rising from the waters. It’s a type of new creation. The dove Noah sends out brings fresh hope, and he and his family and the animals leave the ark to replenish the earth.

God looks again at his fledgling creation, and commits himself anew to the project. He puts the rainbow in the sky and says “this is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” He acknowledges that “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth,” but that’s just something that will need to be dealt with. God intends to mold this thing into what it was meant to be, and he’s not going to destroy it again.

Comments:
Yes, children love animals, but even more, parents seem to love to surround their children with stories of the flood. This has always baffled me: how did the horrible, brutal story of the massacre of all creation (save the inhabitants of one boat) come to be universally acknowledged as an excellent children's story and soothing night-time routine???
 

I guess it depends on who you identify with in the story. The focus is (for children's books, and perhaps even in general) on the ark and those inside. For Noah and his family, it is an amazingly hopeful story, because it really is God's first act of salvation since the fall.

I really think the big reason we tell it to kids is nothing more complicated than the animal connection. (Scenes of Eden are also very common for nursery murals).

By the way, I think this engraving by Dore captures both aspects of the story beautifully.
 

If this blog is like most of those I've been to, you'll hopefully notice even when I comment to old posts. So I'll ask here - why does Genesis 9 seem to portray such a very 'small' God, like one from Norse mythology, who a) is so angry and forgetful that he has to leave celestial notes to himself, b) is used as the 'explanation' for the rainbow the way the Greeks used Zeus' thunderbolts as an 'explanation' for lightning, in a way that feels very grafted-on? This troubles me. It feels incongruent with the rest of the Bible, where I have the impression that God's actions on Earth are aimed at mortals, while divine things go on in Heaven.
 

Hi Erik,

This is, in fact, like other blogs you've posted on - at least in this regard.

The topic you raise is one I've wrestled with at length - you'll find quite a few posts on it. I talk about it specifically here.

One thing I would suggest is to test your assumption with Genesis. Read the Enuma Elish, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Iliad. Immerse yourself in the world of antiquity - travel back in time. Then try reading the Bible with those eyes. You will, of course, see obvious similarities. But, because it is part of the fabric of the time, the common ways of speaking and conceiving will fade to the background. What you will be left with is a very striking picture indeed of the god of Israel - here is a good god, that loves mankind!

In other words, it is precisely when you assume Genesis to be yet another myth of antiquity that you see how unique it really is. You find that the sort of things that scandalize you are rather common to antiquity, whereas the sort of things that are part of the distinct and unique message still overwhelm us with their goodness, beauty, and truth.

That isn't to say we can always easily separate the two. Nor should we want to. If the Bible still speaks to us moderns today, we must not begrudge that it also spoke to the ancients, nor can we be too proud to associate ourselves with them. Shall the hand say to the foot, "I have no need of thee?"
 

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