Noah and the Flood, Genesis 6–9
This morning we are beginning a new journey in studying the Bible. For most of the year I follow the Narrative Lectionary, which is a four-year long plan for which verses to read on which Sundays. Thousands of churches use this plan. The goal of the Narrative Lectionary is to tell the big story of God all the way through each year, using different little stories from the Bible. The Sunday after Labor Day, we start in Genesis, and we stay in the Old Testament all the way through the season of Advent, leading up to Christmas. From Christmas to Easter, we focus on just one gospel, this year it’s the gospel of Matthew. Then we go our own way for a few months in the summer, usually with a special focus like stories of women, or the UCC Statement of Faith, or a deep study of one of the New Testament letters like Philippians or First John.
I gotta tell you all, I love the Old Testament. I love to read it and I love to teach it. And following the story through it really helps it make a lot more sense to people than it does otherwise. This fall, we are going to focus particularly on the ways that the concept of covenant shows up in the Old Testament. The Old Testament has several different covenants that God makes with humanity, and then in the New Testament, we see a new covenant in the person of Jesus Christ, a new way of humans and God in relationship.
So, this fall, covenant in the Old Testament. I’m really excited for us to explore this together. But before we do, we need to think for a few minutes about what the Bible is. And acknowledge that deeply faithful Christians disagree about this. My answer is that the Bible is an authentic story of one group of people’s experience with God. It is a faithful story of their ever unfolding understanding of who God is. As we hear these Old Testament stories, we often ask, “Are they true?” To which I would say, “What does it mean for a story to be true?” Some people in this room believe that Bible stories could have been recorded on video exactly the way it is described. Other people in this room believe that Bible stories contains insight about humanity and God, and wisdom that we recognize as true. So as we tell these stories, I’m not going to spend time on whether they were factually true, because at Zion we have room for lots of opinions.
We want those opinions to be informed opinions, so this fall, I encourage you to bring your Bibles to church with you each week. If you don’t have a Bible, there’s one in the pew in front of you, just take it home. I encourage you to make notes in your Bible. This is a living text and the more we read it, the more it comes alive IN us.
You can read the Bible and make sense of it on your own. I hope you do that. This text has started revolutions and stopped wars and changed the lives of ordinary people for thousands of years. You can understand it. And also, we benefit as a community from reading and studying it together, with some extra insight from someone who has done some extra study. That’s why churches call someone into the role of pastor and teacher. When we study together, I will often give you a few perspectives and tell you what I think, because you have called me to be your pastor and teacher, but you always have to decide for yourself. If what I say doesn’t sit right with you, wrestle with it. Think about it. Pray about it. Read the story yourself and see what the Holy Spirit reveals to you. I am called to teach you but we are each ultimately free to decide what we believe and how that moves us to live.
So let’s go. This year, the story we are going to start with is not the Garden of Eden. We are going to start with the story of the flood, of Noah and the ark. We know this story. Or at least we think we do. I suspect that there are a few things in this story that you may not have noticed before and I want to point them out. And there are a few things in this story that aren’t so obvious in English, and so I want to point those out. My calling is to be your pastor and teacher, and like I said, I love to teach. It runs in my family. And if I weren’t a pastor, I’d probably be teaching somewhere. You know I love the Hebrew words. And I know that you are a people who are hungry to learn and to understand, not just to have the same old message spoon fed to you week after week. So, let’s get some forks and dig in.
Since this is a well-known story, I’m going to read a few verses and talk about them and then read a little more and talk about it, instead of reading one big chunk this morning. After the proclamation of the Word, after we read the Bible, we usually say, “This is the Word of God for all people, thanks be to God.” This fall I want to try something different. I learned recently that after the Torah is read in Jewish synagogues, the people respond “From strength to strength, may we be strengthened.” I like that. We’re going to try it for a little while. I’ll say “From strength to strength,” and you’ll respond with “may we be strengthened,” and then we’ll still say “Thanks be to God” because that honors our Christian tradition. OK? So let’s look at the first section of the story.
This is from Genesis chapter 6. Grab those Bibles in front of you and turn to page 9. We’re going to start in verse 5.
The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.
This is the account of Noah and his family.
Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God. Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham and Japheth. <Noah also had a wife and his sons had wives as well.>
Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth. So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; [Here’s how you build an ark.] I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—[Bring your family and a lot of animals and food for everyone.]”
Noah did everything just as God commanded him.
From strength to strength, may we be strengthened. Thanks be to God.
I want you to see what humans were doing, how God felt about it, and what God did. The humans are doing wickedness, which is the same word for evil in the Garden story when the people eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The people are doing wickedness, violence, and corruption. The word corruption shows up in other places except that most often the translation is not corruption, but “destruction.” Just put that in your brain pocket for a minute. Every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. Evil, wickedness, violence, corruption, and destruction. That’s what humans are up to. (Which is often how I feel when I read the news.)
And how does God feel about this? Look at verse 6. “The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.” Humans are doing evil, wickedness, violence, corruption, and destruction, and how does God feel? Regretful, sorry, hurt, pained, grieved. Not angry. Hear this very clearly: God. Was. NOT. Angry. Instead, God feels sadness, grief, pain, and regret. The evil that we choose to do breaks God’s heart, grieves God. Did you know every inhabited continent has an ancient flood? But the gods in other stories send a flood because they are angry or annoyed that humans are too loud and are breeding too fast. The Ancient Hebrews wanted to teach that their God was not like that. God was hoping that the creatures made in God’s image would choose to mimic God’s goodness, but instead we chose evil and God was devastated.
So what does God do? Humans choose evil, violence and destruction. God is devastated. And God chooses to do … destruction. No getting around it. That’s what the story says. But now pull that earlier thing out of your brain pocket. The word in verses 11 and 12 for what humans were doing, corruption, that’s the same word in verse 14 for what God chooses to do, destruction. In Hebrew it’s the same word! Corruption and destruction are the same thing. Human are destroying the world and so God chooses to destroy the world. In this case, God dishes back what the humans are already doing. We might say God allows the choices of the humans to run their full course. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, we aren’t punished for our sins; we are punished by our sins? Often in the Bible, God’s wrath, or God’s justice is simply God giving us what we’re already acting like we want. Destruction. Although, yes, in this case, it’s the nuclear option. In this case, God fights fire with fire (ironically, it’s water, but you see what I mean). God allows the full force of the consequences of our actions to be played out all over the earth. And it’s utter destruction.
Let’s return to the text, this is in chapter 7 starting in verse 11.
In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month—on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights. Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; people and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds were wiped from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those with him in the ark. The waters flooded the earth for a hundred and fifty days.
<And here’s the beginning of chapter 8.>
But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and God sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded.
From strength to strength, may we be strengthened. Thanks be to God.
Even when God takes the nuclear option, it’s never total destruction. God refrained from total destruction by keeping a remnant, a small group of humans and animals as a seed of promise for a new world. God made a way for them to stay safe and survive during this time of un-creation. This story is a reminder to us that our actions have consequences. The evil that humans chose then affected animals and plants, just as our evil does now. Everything in our world is connected. Sometimes the consequences of evil are long-lasting. The rains came down for 40 days and the water rose for another 150 days. But the God Who Creates and Loves the World was still around and chapter 8 verse 1 says, “But God remembered Noah and the animals.” Even as we suffer the results of our own choices, God does not forget us. God is a good creator who is always seeking an opportunity to create something new. You know how the next part of the story goes. God sent a wind to dry up the water, the same word in Genesis 1 for the Spirit that hovered over the waters before creation. Even after the boat landed on a mountain, Noah still had to wait for the waters to go down and the world to dry out before his family and the animals could leave the ark. And finally, when they emerged from the consequences of human actions and found a new start waiting for them, Noah built an altar and worshipped God. Let’s read a little more in chapter 8 verse 21 and 22.
The Lord smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done. “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.”
Let’s jump to chapter 9 verse 11: I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
From strength to strength, may we be strengthened. Thanks be to God.
What blows my mind about this story is that God tried something and it didn’t work. Before the flood, every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time, and so God destroyed creation. After the flood, every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart is only evil all the time, and so God promises to never again destroy creation. God fought fire with fire, God answered violence with violence and it didn’t work! God answered violence with violence and it didn’t work.
And the first covenant God makes is with all of creation, not just people but animals and plants too. And the covenant, the promise, that God makes to us, is that no matter how bad things get, God will never again answer our violence with destructive divine violence. Now, like we said a few weeks ago when talking about justice and mercy, this doesn’t mean that whatever we do is fine. Our corruption and evil and violence are still wrong. They will still have consequences. They still break God’s heart. And God still has to find a way to deal with it. The rest of the story of the Bible is about how God destroys evil without destroying the people who do the evil.
That’s what the sign of the rainbow means, and here’s a place where Christians see a hint of what’s coming with Jesus. After the flood, God chooses to respond to evil with covenant love, both in this story and in all the ones that come after it. God knows that we are still going to choose destruction, but by promising to never again destroy us, God chooses to suffer the pain and grief that our evil causes God. In fact, if someone were to fire an arrow from the rainbow that hangs in the sky, the arrow would “hit God” and not us. From this point forward, God chooses to absorb our violence. And while we know that the original authors of this story had no idea who Jesus would be, Christians can see the beginning of the Jesus story right here. Thousands of years later, when we still choose violence, God chooses to finally conquer evil in the body of Jesus. The life of Jesus shows us what it looks like to only ever choose good and not evil. The death of Jesus demonstrates God’s total commitment to absorb our violence. And the resurrection of Jesus puts an end to our fear of death, enabling us to choose good regardless of what might happen to us. When we see a rainbow, we do not fearfully remember destruction. We joyfully anticipate sacrificial love. Amen.