It’s Rally Day or Welcome Back Sunday or Where the Heck Have you Been All Summer Sunday and everyone is excited to kick off the new church year. A fun hymn is sung, the Sunday school teachers are commissioned, and then with great anticipation the first reading is begun: The Lord saw that wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually… (womp, womp – #DebbyDowner)
Here are some pieces of “exegetical underwear” that I think are helpful for the preacher, but aren’t necessarily to be shown to the congregation:
- This story is spread out over 5 chapters and 129 verses (Genesis 6:1-10:32);
- It doesn’t exactly come in for a solid landing – both the Yahwist and the Priestly writers give it a go, offering the reader a very confusing ending;
- The NL doesn’t have the Yahwist ending where Noah’s sacrifice smells so darn good, that God’s mind and heart accept that human beings are terrible, but God won’t destroy them again despite that;
- The Priestly narrative takes over in chapter 9 with a repeated “never again” although this time the promise appears to be only as it pertains to flooding rather than a blanket “never again”;
- A flood narrative is not unique to Scripture;
- There is the Epic of Gilgamesh – (could be as early as 29th c. BCE) considered the world’s first truly great work of literature; from Mesopotamia;
- Also The Epic of Atrahasis – (17th c. BCE) – The gods had created humans to be their slave labor. But they were becoming too noisy, and this disturbed the gods. The god Enlil decreed that humans should be destroyed in a flood. Atrahasis, through the help of the god Ea, escapes the wrath of Enlil by building a large boat in which to save humanity.
- In my opinion, the similarities between Scripture and “pagan” stories are too many to ignore: a flood and building a huge boat by divine command, pitch seals the boat, the boat is built to precise dimensions (the biblical boat is much larger), clean and unclean animals come on board, a Noah figure and his family are saved (Gilgamesh includes some others), the boat comes to rest on a mountain, a raven and doves were sent out (Gilgamesh includes a swallow), animals will fear humans, the deity/deities smell the pleasing aroma of the sacrifices afterwards, a sign of an oath is given (lapis lazuli necklace for Gilgamesh).
- Here are some New Testament Reference to the flood narrative: Matthew 24:37-39, 2 Peter 3:5-10, 1 Peter 3:20-22, 2 Peter 2:5, Hebrews 11:7.
- God calls creation “very good” in 1:31. By 6:7 it’s “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created” – my Dad held his temper on road trips longer than that.
- KJ SIDE NOTE: Why do so many church nurseries have this as the theme for their nurseries? I get that the animals are cute… but the rest of their kind and ALL OF THE REST OF HUMANITY WERE DESTROYED!!!
- Okay, fine, the rainbow is cool too.
Cataclysmic floods aren’t the only part of this story that is shared with ancient cultures. The same can be said of rainbows. The Norse imagined that the rainbow was a bridge between heaven and earth. Ancient Greeks believed the rainbow was the mode of transportation used by the messenger Iris. According to Babylonian myth, the rainbow was the jeweled necklace of the Great Mother Ishtar, and in Hindu lore, the rainbow was the weapon of a heavenly archer. Even in Hebrew scripture rainbows had multivalent interpretations. Habakkuk points to the ancient Israelite belief that God possessed a bow of her own, “You brandished your naked bow, sated were the arrows at your command…” (Hab 3:9). In this passage, the rainbow’s meaning is clear. It is God’s sign (to God and to us) of the everlasting covenant.
Soooo…. Why did God choose a flood?
Was it to purge the earth of corruption? Water is a cleaning agent, BUT if this is the case, the mission failed. You would think God would have known it wouldn’t work.
Was it for a cosmic do-over? In this case water is used as a force of destruction (mayim = chaos), BUT not all of creation is destroyed, and again… it doesn’t work.
Was the story co-opted from other traditions in order to show a more loving ONE God versus meany-pants gods?
Was the story to show that God counts on humanity’s goodness (even when it’s just one dude)?
The Flood re-characterizes God’s commitment to the world. Through the folds of the story, the faithfulness of God is revealed. From start to finish, what changes is the way that God chooses to relate to the creation. At the end of the story, God’s posture toward creation is clear-eyed about our faults and yet unshakable in loving commitment.
Kathryn Johnston is Senior Pastor/Head of Staff of Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church in Mechanicsburg, PA. She was among the contributors to the RevGals book, There’s a Woman in the Pulpit. Kathryn and her wife, RevGals Executive Director Martha Spong, have four “hers and hers” children, from a brand new 8th grader to three who have flown the nest for Los Angeles, Boston, and Tokushima, Japan.
Looking for liturgy for this Sunday? Check out this post on Martha’s blog.
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