Greatest Hits of the Hebrew Bible #2
Sermon for June 26, 2022, Pentecost 3 C
Video will be available after the service at the website of the Central Presbyterian Church, Fort Smith, AR.
Genesis 6—9 selected verses
6:5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. 6 And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the sight of the LORD.
11 Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. 14 Make yourself an ark of cypressa wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch.
17 For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. 19 And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female.
7:1 Then the LORD said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. 2 Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; 3 and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. 4 For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.” 5 And Noah did all that the LORD had commanded him.
7 And Noah with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. 8 Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, 9 two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah. 10 And after seven days the waters of the flood came on the earth.
11. all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. 12 The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.
7:17 The flood continued forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth.
8:1 But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided;
8:13 In the six hundred first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and saw that the face of the ground was drying.
8:20 Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.
22 As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest, cold and heat,
summer and winter, day and night,
shall not cease.”
9:1 God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.
9:8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 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. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”
We call the scriptures our “wisdom tradition” for a reason. They are a treasury of wisdom passed down through the centuries. But they are ancient, not modern, which means that understanding that wisdom is challenging.
The ancient world had different story-telling conventions. Sometimes the ancient stories incorporated legends and myths that came from surrounding cultures.
In the ancient worlds of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Sumeria, there were stories of catastrophic floods that threatened all life on earth.
You may have heard of the epic of Atrahasis or of Gilgamesh. They tell of floods as the punishment of some of the gods for human behavior they disapproved of. They include common elements like ordering a hero to build a large boat, coating it with pitch, and taking people and animals on board, ending on a mountain after the flood, opening the window and releasing birds, and offering sacrifice.
Our Genesis account of the flood incorporates many of these elements, and yet radically changes others. There is a discernible blending of several versions of a flood story into one, as we can see from the fact that one story has Noah gathering only a pair of every kind of animal, and the other has him taking seven pairs of clean animals and only a pair of unclean animals.
Chronologically, even that distinction is odd, given that this story is set many generations before the law of Moses indicated those clean, unclean distinctions.
One of the radical differences differences between the Genesis flood story and other ancient stories is the way in which God is described. In Genesis, God is one, not many. God is also morally good.
In the Atrahasis epic, one of the gods is irritated that humans are making too much noise, and so decides to kill them all with a flood. Another god intervenes to help the hero escape by giving him a warning and telling him to build a boat.
But in Genesis, God is not trivially vexed and brutally vengeful. Rather God is pictured as sorrowful. Human evil, specifically violence, is so great that God is pictured as regretting creating them at all.
God looks at the human race and concludes,
“every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.”
I wonder what the author would describe God saying if he looked at the world today? Violence escalates. I fear for our world. I fear for our country. I am no prophet, but it does not take one to believe it is likely that a flood is coming.
One thing is certain: floods is coming for all of us in many ways. We all know that our lives will come to an end. For most of us, our bodies will break down and we will eventually die. At least that flood is coming.
Before that flood, other floods may come. Relationships may come undone. Economic calamity may come. War is always a looming threat. The earth is warming. Many floods are possible, and some are likely.
The flood story is about a person who knows a flood is coming and who does something to prepare for it.
Noah, unlike the others who ignore the obvious, makes preparations; he builds an ark. If we know that floods are coming, the question is, what kind of ark are we building? What are we doing every day to be the kind of people who can deal with the coming floods?
The good news in this story is that there are things that can be done. There is hope. The basis for that hope is precisely the difference between how God is imagined in Genesis.
The God of Genesis is personal. God is pictured as having emotions. God is regretful, God’s heart is grieved. God is almost in tears. It tears God apart that humans are so cruel to each other. God sees the violence, the bloodshed, the lifted sword, and grieves.
God hears the bombshells blasting people apart in their apartments in Ukraine and the gunshots hitting shoppers and school children in America and grieves. This imagines a God who cares for people.
Now, we must admit that this story is also a horror story. It is about genocide. That is the structure of the story from the Ancient Near East that the author of Genesis used.
I once read this story to my son who was a toddler. The children’s bible I read from had illustrations in child-friendly primary colors. On one page there were two men punching each other as a mother, holding a baby, looked on from her front door. On the next page, the people were gone, and the house was under water. My son asked, “Where is the baby?”
But this is not a children’s story. This is a story about people who allow conditions to get so bad that they are becoming unsurvivable. But it is also the story of a God who cares, and a person who takes God’s perspective seriously enough to prepare for what is coming.
Just as in other ancient flood stories, eventually the flood waters subside, birds are released, the boat comes to rest on a mountain, and finally, the hero emerges to offer sacrifices to God.
In the Gilgamesh epic, the gods who have not been fed by sacrifices during the flood, are ravenous. They gather around the sacrificial smoke in a feeding frenzy.
By contrast, the God in Genesis is not needy. God merely smells the pleasing aroma. It is received as an offering of gratitude.
God’s regret that humans were created in the first place began this story. We are not told explicitly, but it appears that at the story’s end God also feels regret, this time about the flood itself. God says that even though the inclination of human hearts are evil from their youth, nevertheless, that was the last total deluge. Never again.
God’s orientation toward humanity in all its lostness and brokenness is pro-human, not anti-human. So, according to the ancient custom, God makes a covenant.
A covenant was a solemn promise that bound two parties together. In this covenant, God binds Godself to never again be the destroyer.
Notice to whom God makes this vow: it is not merely to Noah, and not limited to Noah’s family alone, nor even to all humans. This 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….”
All of creation is God’s concern. Animals are God’s concern. The well-being of all living creatures is God’s concern. Therefore, threats to endangered species are God’s concern. Threats to viable habitats are God’s concern. Environmental damage from a warming planet is God’s concern.
To emphasize and illustrate God’s resolve to be pro-biosphere the author again imagines God as a human, subject to forgetfulness. God will put a reminder of the covenant in plain sight. God will make a symbolic weapon, a battle bow in the sky.
The arch of the bow and therefore the direction of any arrow it might fire, is pointed away from the earth. It is the perfect reminder; “never again.”
Floods are coming. Many floods are coming. They are coming both personally and publicly. But we are people of the God of promise. We are people of the pro-creatures, pro-people God.
We are people who are of far more value to God than the lilies of the field or the birds of the air that Jesus taught us to take a lesson from. We are people of the God who has bound Godself to us in an eternal covenant for our good.
We are alive today. There is still time to prepare to be the people who can withstand the floods, and perhaps even prevent some of them.